PAGANINI: Guitar Music, Gran Sonata, Capricci
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Nicol?? Paganini (1782-1840)
Nicol?? Paganini was music's first superstar. His careeras a violinist was attended by inflated concert prices,mass enthusiasm, even hysteria, rumours of supernaturalpowers, a pact with the devil, all supported by a superbviolin technique, a capacity for daring innovation and agenuine musical gift. All very unlike the quiet life of aclassical guitarist.
Yet Paganini was a guitarist too, and a very goodone. He wrote: 'I love the guitar for its harmony; it ismy constant companion in all my travels'. He also said,on another occasion, 'I do not like this instrument, butregard it simply as a way of helping me to think'. It isnot a real contradiction: even the most constant ofcompanions can be irritating at times. He chose not toexploit the guitar in the same way as he exploited theviolin. Had he done so, the advances in technique theguitar has seen during the last two or three generationsmight have come a great deal sooner. Only recently hasthe full extent of Paganini's guitar compositions beenrevealed. Few of them were ever published, and whenthe Italian government was offered the collection, theyturned it down. The guitar remained out of fashion for along time, and Paganini's connection with it was all butforgotten. Our modern age is to a large extent concernedwith discovery and revival, and it was inevitable thatPaganini's work should come under scrutiny sooner orlater. Because the guitar compositions do not containthe brilliance that we find in the Caprices for violin, itis easy to dismiss them as inferior, in the sense of 'notso good'. You might as well say that Snowdon isinferior to Mount Everest: it is true only in the literalsense of one mountain being lower than the other, butthey are both mountains, the chief difference being thatone can be approached for a pleasant afternoon's walkand the other cannot.
Paganini left a large amount of chamber music thatincludes the guitar, still to be thoroughly explored.
Meanwhile, the music for solo guitar is readilyaccessible, and guitarists are discovering it withpleasure. Why has it taken the best part of two centuriesto bring this attractive music to light? Apart from thefact that most of the guitar pieces were never published- though it is worth noting that of his compositions thatwere published during his lifetime, all but the 24 Capricesfor solo violin include the guitar - Paganini had built upsuch a huge reputation as an innovative violinist ofunprecedented brilliance that it was hard to believe thathe played the guitar at a similarly high level. Then, too,the guitar suffered a decline during the nineteenthcentury. Only recently, fuelled by the record industry'sinsatiable demand for new music, has a culture ofresearch grown up in which unheard music by oldcomposers is dragged out of its obscurity, dusted downand found to be not only tolerable but very often goodmusic and well worth reviving.
One of the fascinating things about Paganini is theinteraction between his violin technique and his guitartechnique. He frequently played both instrumentsduring his musical sessions with friends, even (as aneyewitness has recorded) putting the violin between hisknees so that he could pick up the guitar and continueplaying without interrupting the flow. We may inferfrom this that his left hand approached each of the twofingerboards in much the same way, and the guitarmusic supports this idea: linear rather than verticalharmony, arpeggiated chords aiding the forwardmovement of the melodic line.
Both violin and guitar are integral parts ofPaganini's unique personality. It is no longer possible tothink of one without thinking of the other. The linksmay not at first be obvious, given that the violin musicwas for public consumption, with all the superficialdisplay that the public demanded, while the guitar wasfor music at home among friends. It remains musiccreated by the same man, and that makes a goodstarting-point. Though his friend Hector Berlioz, whoknew something about the guitar, paid tribute toPaganini's guitar ability, it was his violin that peoplewanted to hear, and his extraordinary success with itmade him a legendary figure in nineteenth-centurymusic. Would his guitar compositions ever havearoused a paying audience to the raptures that his violinbrilliance did? We can only guess what might havehappened if Paganini had never discovered what hecould do with a violin, if he had concentrated his effortsentirely on the guitar. It is not impossible that we wouldhave had a set of Caprices written for the guitar and noless difficult. This is perhaps one reason why his guitarmusic, on a first hearing, does not glow with the fierybrilliance of those extraordinary pieces for violin, butthere is plenty of good music there, as guitarists andtheir audiences are discovering.
The Grand Sonata originally included a violin partof extreme simplicity, because it was the custom forPaganini to exchange his violin for the guitar of LuigiLegnani at the end of one of their joint recitals. Legnani'sviolin playing did not approach the level of Paganini'sguitar playing, however, and the part had to be writtenaccordingly. Its meagre proportions often lead guitariststo dispense with it altogether, apart from incorporating afew of the violin's notes where appropriate. The richsubstance of the guitar part, requiring a virtuoso'stechnique, which Paganini had on both instruments,more than makes up for the loss of the violin. The firstmovement, a free and flowing Allegro risoluto in sonataform, is followed by the endearingly melodic Romancein a slow 6/8 tempo. The Andantino variato is a themeand six variations that becomes more and moretechnically demanding as the work reaches its stirringconclusion.
The Ghiribizzi (whims, fancies or caprices) seem tohave been written in or around 1819. The composerwrote in 1824 that they were for 'a little girl in Naples',and that he wanted to scribble (scarabocchiare) somepopular tunes rather than compose something moreserious. Like many such sketches, written impulsivelywithout careful planning and construction, they havetheir own unique charm and freshness. No. 16 uses thearia In cor pi?? non mi sento (In my heart I feel nothingmore) from Paisiello's opera La Molinara, No. 37 isbased on a melody from La gazza ladra, with Rossini'sAllegro ingeniously remodelled into an Adagietto.
Melodies by Mozart (Don Giovanni), S??ssmayr andPaganini himself appear among the total of 43, anirresistible collection of melodies in a playable form notneeding the highest of guitar techniques, though, asalways, a high level of musical understanding. TheGhiribizzi are Paganini's Album for the Young.
Unlike the Grand Sonata, most of Paganini'ssonatas are in two-movement form, generally a minuetfollowed by a waltz, an allegretto or even an allegrettoscherzando, both movements in the same key. Theminuets inevitably conjure up the eighteenth centuryfrom time to time, yet they never fail to convey theessence of Paganini's essentially Romantic music.
The 24 Caprices for unaccompanied violin arePaganini's most celebrated compositions. Exploitingthe violin in daring, exciting and entirely new ways,they changed the image of the violin for ever. YetPaganini himself never played them in public, thoughhe dedicated them to the artists (agli artisti). It isperhaps strange that, with a few exceptions, guitaristsstill seem more ready to tackle the extreme technicaldifficulties of the violin Caprices than to investigatemusic that Paganini actually wrote for the guitar. That ispartly because the guitar music is now virtually part of'Early Music'. The Caprices have never remotelyapproached that status, and are genuine classics, neitherancient nor modern but sublimely timeless.Colin Cooper