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8.553141 - PAGANINI: Centone di Sonate, Vol. 1
Nicolo Paganini (1782 - 1840)
Guitar music is now written both by players of the instrument and by many who are not, but it was not always so. At one time composers were also virtuoso performers (usually of their own works) but during the nineteenth century this link became less and less strong; today, the composer-performer is a rare bird. The tide of musical events, however, bypassed the guitar, so that, until the situation was changed through the efforts of Andres Segovia (1893 - 1987), those who wrote for it also played it. In his own time Paganini was a famed virtuoso on both the violin and the guitar. In fact it was with plucked strings that he began his musical life at the age of five, with mandolin lessons from his father (a capable amateur musician); after two years he turned to the violin - which has the same tuning as the mandolin. Having soon exhausted his father's resources as a teacher he studied first with Antonio Cervetto (a theatre violinist) and then with the (locally) more famous Giacomo Costa, who, maybe to boost his own prestige as much as for the benefit of his pupil, arranged for the twelve-year-old Paganini to play in public. One year later his formal instruction in violin-playing ended and the self-instruction that led to the development of his 'legendary' technique began.
Paganini, a Genoese, showed an early talent for composition, in which he had some tuition from one Francesco Gnecco (an operatic composer). In 1795 he went to further his violin studies in Parma with the great Alessandro Rolla who, declaring that there was nothing that he could teach Paganini, advised him to study composition instead, which he did for one year, with Ghiretti and Paer, before returning to Genoa - where he became overtly interested in the guitar. It is possible that his father had also taught him to play it, though there is no record of this - his elder brother Carlo played both the violin and the guitar, and he may have had further lessons with Rolla, who also played the guitar; this view is supported by the fact that his first work for violin and guitar was written when he was twelve, but it remains speculative and unproven.
Paganini's attitude to the guitar seems to have been ambivalent, for he is reported as having said: "I do not like this instrument but regard it simply as a way of helping me to think... to stimulate my imagination...which is something I cannot do on the violin, but otherwise it has no value in my eyes" - and: "The violin is my mistress but the guitar is my master". He nevertheless wrote copiously for the guitar - its presence in the majority of his chamber music seems to contradict his reported low valuation of it, and he achieved on it a level of virtuosity that was admired by the other virtuosi of his time.
The guitar is popularly seen as the instrument par excellence with which to seduce the ladies, and Paganini may have shared that view, for between 1801- 1805 he vanished from view, sharing a love nest with a Florentine lady of nobility whose identity remains unknown to this day. His Duet to amoroso, albeit dated 1807(?), is dedicated "alla Signora Dida"- was that a clue to her name? We cannot be certain; he was notoriously fond of the ladies! What we do know is that she played the guitar and doubtless stimulated Paganini to write at least some of his 200 or so works in which the instrument is involved, several of which date from 1804-1805. Paganini is known to have played violin/guitar duets with the German violinist M. Sina and the virtuoso guitarist Luigi Legnani, though there is no record that they ever played together in public - Paganini may not have wished to 'dilute' his reputation as a virtuoso of the violin by publicising his interest in the guitar. In the majority of these duo works the guitar part is relatively simple and subsidiary; it is likely that when he performed them with friends and pupils (no matter how distinguished!) he appropriated the violin parts for himself. The date -1804 -of his Sonata concertata, in which the parts are more evenly balanced, does however raise an interesting question: How good a guitarist was "Signora Dida" or whoever his love-nest partner was?
Paganini stated his intention to publish his music but very little appeared in print during his lifetime, and it did not include the 18 Centone di Sonate ("medley" of sonatas) which, with their simple guitar parts, were probably aimed at the amateur music-making public. He used the term 'sonata' to describe a variety of music, ranging from 'classical' sonata-form works to others which consisted of an assemblage of movements more closely resembling a baroque 'sonata' - a work to be played, as distinct from one to be sung - a cantata. In a sense Paganini stood between Locatelli, whose 24 Caprices for solo violin he knew and transcended, and Chopin, who followed his example in turning technical problems into delightful pieces of music. Paganini's image in his day was that of a man possessed by the devil, a wild-eyed performer of feats of unimaginable virtuosity; one of today's famous violinists said to the present writer: "He probably couldn't have done what we can do today - walk into a recording studio and give a computer-perfect performance, but we probably can't generate his electricity". There is, however, nothing of the demonic Paganini in the Centone di sonate, melodious and winsome works of immediate appeal, whose natural habitat is that of the salon. Small can be - and here is - beautiful. Those who consider Paganini to be no more than a composer of show-off extravaganzas for the violin and sentimental trivia might remember that amongst those of his contemporaries who had high regard for his music were Schubert and Schumann.
© 1994 John W. Duarte
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