Niccolo Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 6 - The Violinist's Challenge
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Niccolo Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 6 - The Violinist's Challenge

History and analysis of the composer's first violin concerto of 1817, one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire.

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6

The Italian violinist and composer Paganini was one of the most fascinating figures in nineteenth century music. His parents were poor, but amongst his father's possessions were a violin and a mandolin; at the age of five, Niccolò already played the mandolin, and by seven his interest had shifted to the violin. His mother declared that she had had a vision from heaven in which an angel had prophesied that her son would be one of the world's greatest violinists. The father felt there would be money to be had from this, so he undertook teaching his son as much as he could; soon Niccolò outgrew his father as a teacher, so he started studying with private teachers. When progress was not satisfactory, the boy was punished with the cane, and even deprived of food, until his diligence showed improvement. It is no wonder that by the age of ten he was a virtuoso on his instrument. His first public appearance the next year was a tremendous success. Shortly thereafter he began to compose, but always taking good care to make the music he wrote for his instrument so difficult that he alone could play it; throughout his life, his contemporaries thought his music was unplayable in the demands that he made of the performer.

Once his career was established, Paganini piqued the curiosity of all who saw him, mostly because of his odd physical appearance; he was described as having a "mephistophelian silhouette," a thin body and extremely long limbs - his fingers and wrists seemed to have been created especially for the violin. There was always an aura of mystery associated with him; the words "fantastic," "prodigious," and "supernatural" were constantly used by his contemporaries when they spoke or wrote about him. Some people swore that the man had made a pact with the devil, and some even claimed to have seen "the devil at his elbow, directing his arm and guiding his bow." Suspicion, innuendo, jealousy, and the idle machinations of the superstitious whirred madly in his wake. Paganini capitalized on this image, and once had the bizarre inspiration to publish a letter from his mother, disproving the rumor that he was the devil's son. More importantly, however, he elicited the mingled amazement and admiration of all who heard him play, including such Romantic figures as Schumann, Chopin, Théophile Gautier, and even Goethe, who was thirty-three years his senior. Rossini, who was not given to unrestrained praise, looked upon Paganini with devotion, and at the same time, something akin to fear; Meyerbeer followed the virtuoso through his travels, in a vain attempt to penetrate the mystery of his powers; after hearing him play in Paris in 1832, Liszt took a leave from performing in public to perfect his already outstanding piano technique.

Hector Berlioz once wrote: "A man of such wit, Choron said in speaking of Weber: 'He is a meteor!' With equal justice one could say of Paganini: 'He is a comet!' For never did a flaming star burst more abruptly on the firmament of art or excite in the course of its immense ellipse more astonishment mixed with a sort of terror before vanishing forever. The comets of the physical world, if poets and popular ideas are to be believed, only appear in times prophetic of terrible storms which overwhelm the human ocean....This exceptional genius, unique in his kind, grew up in Italy at the beginning of the greatest events mentioned in history. He began to emerge at the court of one of Napoleon's sisters at the most solemn hour of the Empire; he triumphantly toured Germany at the moment when the giant was lying in his tomb; he came forward to France to the sound of the crumbling dynasty, and it was together with cholera that he entered Paris."

As a composer, something of the intense individuality for which he was renowned had bearing on his creative work. The musicologist Eric Blom described his works as having "a quality and character all their own and...strangely independent of the general musical idiom of their time as is the music of Berlioz among contemporaries or that of Pergolesi earlier and Sibelius later." Berlioz himself declared: "One would have to write a volume to indicate all the finds Paganini has made in his works in respect to novel effects, ingenious procedures, noble and imposing forms, [and] orchestral combinations not even suspected before him. His melody is the great Italian melody, but alive with an ardor generally more passionate than that which one finds in the most beautiful pages of the dramatic composers of his country. His harmony is always clear, simple, and of extraordinary sonority." Schumann considered the technical difficulties in his compositions as "the solstice of virtuosity."

Paganini composed a total of six violin concertos, including an unnumbered one written in his youth, in addition to over twenty other works for violin and orchestra. The Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6 was written circa 1817; the composer introduced it in Naples in 1819. Technically, this is one of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire; throughout its course the soloist will have to cope with some of the highest possible positions for the instrument, sudden shifts and changes of register, artificial harmonics, fast passage pizzicatos, combined pizzicatos and arco runs (with the left hand), unison and octave trills, guitaristic strummed chords, and chromatic glissandi.

Although cast in sonata form, the Allegro maestoso exhibits rhapsodic characteristics as the composer goes from one idea to the other without developing any single motif systematically in the traditional manner. Two loud tutti chords, announce the introduction which bears the mood of a Rossini overture. The solo violin then presents the first theme, one characterized by its wide ranging skips; the second theme is more lyrical in nature. The movement ends with three loud orchestral chords after the cadenza, one of the most exciting written for the violin; this lengthy (almost three minutes long) cadenza was written out by Émile Sauret, using notations made by violinists who attended Paganini's performance of the work, since the composer never notated it.

The Adagio is interesting for some of the accompanying orchestral textures which include string tremolandos, interjections from the trombones and doublebasses, and pianissimo rolls for the bass drums and cymbals. After an impassioned, short orchestral introduction, the soloist once again takes complete charge of the proceedings in this highly operatic movement.

The concluding Allegro spiritoso takes the form of a lively rondo with a distinctly Mediterranean flavor. This movement is highly original and is full of technical difficulties. Of note is a passage where the soloist is called to play an entire sequence of thirds in high harmonics. With dramatic flair and a wizard-like display of acrobatics, the soloist reigns supreme to the very end.

* Author's addendum:

*  The cover image is the 1832 Delacroix painting of Paganini.

* The audio links provided above for each movement of the D major Concerto are a terrific recording of the Swedish Radio Symphony with violinist Hilary Hahn, Eiji Oue conducting.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists and musicians by purchasing music and art legally,  Thank you.


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