For most of people who don’t know much more,
just means “violin”.
He has come to be the personification of the instrument, the most
famous violin player ever, during his life up to our times, thanks to
exceptional virtuoso playing and his personality. His works have
inspired many to take up violin
lessons for beginners.
Very few know that, besides
violin, Paganini played guitar and viola. He composed a
lot of music with
guitar for his friends, amateur players, and used to play with them.
These are the very interesting and original works
for viola that Paganini wrote.
Serenata, for viola,
cello and guitar, written before 1808
Quartet n.15, for viola
concertante, violin, cello and guitar, (between 1818-20)
Terzetto concertante for viola,
cello and guitar (1833)
Sonata per Grand’Viola and
orchestra, which was
definitely composed for himself in 1834, after refusing Harold
had began to write at his request.
Although he did have some teachers, Nicolò
his own very personal style and technique. He was famous for his
prodigious technique, leading some people to say he had done a pact
with the devil, but in his time he was also greatly appreciated for his
tone, showing also a clear influence from the Italian opera
He was very interested in exploring the
possibilities of producing new sounds and tone
colours on the violin. He often used the scordatura,
double harmonics and left hand pizzicato. In his
concertos the strings in the orchestra often play pizzicato
to accompany the solo violin (and the solo viola, too).
Nicolò Paganini was born 1782 in the republic of Genoa, in Italy, and
started his musical
studies with his father, a keen amateur, and then
with the leader in the theatre orchestra. At twelve he had already
given several concerts in local churches and composed the Carmagnola,
as set of variations on a French revolutionary song. He was advised to
study with Alessandro
Rolla, leader at the Ducale theatre in Parma,
violin and violavirtuoso,
who very likely made him aware of the possibilities of viola playing,
had already been employing some of the new tricks that Paganini will
use more extensively, such as left-hand pizzicato, chromatic ascending
and descending scales, the use of very high positions on violin and
viola, octave passages.
From 1801 to 1809 he was in Lucca, in Tuscany,
giving several very well
received concerts, although in one he was criticised for having played
jokes in his performance, such as imitating cries of animals and other
strange sounds. From 1805 he played in the orchestra there and composed
several works, including the sonata Napoleone, for violin and orchestra
to be played all on
the G string tuned up to Bb.
From 1810 Paganini began his life as an independent solo
Till 1827 he did several tours of Italy, including Milan, Genoa,
Venice, in Bologna met Rossini and they became friends. Paganini later
wrote variations on Rossini’s arias from Tancredi, Mose and
Cenerentola, conducted the premiere of one of his operas, with great
success. Then Florence, Rome, Naples, Palermo.
In 1816 he completed the 1st
violin concerto in Eb (again using the scordatura,
with the violin tuned a semitone up), later transposed to D by
In 1820 the publisher Ricordi published the 24
Capricci (24 Caprices), dedicated to the
professionals musicians (“alli artisti”), as opposed
to many other works dedicated “alli amatori” (to the
Paganini’s 24 Caprices are a set of studies exploring different aspects
of violin technique and at the same time works of great artistic value.
Although they were not meant for public performance, they were
immediately judged unplayable, but now they have become part of all
violinists’ study and have even been transcribed for viola.
They are much more difficult on the viola because of its size,
yet the famous viola player William Primrose showed
that it was possible to do it and even recorded some of them, which
helped him a lot in his career. (...more about Primrose is
At the same time appeared six sonatas for violin and guitar,
and six guitar quartets. Paganini composed nine more guitar quartets,
in all of them the violin has the main part in contrast with the other
three instruments having a darker tone. Quartet n.15
is an exception in that it is the viola which has
the solo role, showing its gorgeous tone, especially in a beautiful
Recitativo and Aria.
In 1824 Paganini met Antonia Bianchi from whom he had a son in 1825,
Achille, who remained with him even after the separation from her. When
Paganini met Berlioz,
Achille was with his father and gave Berlioz that so much important letter
and gift. In 1826 Paganini composed the 2nd
violin concerto, in which the triangle in the last movement imitates
the sound of a small bell. This movement was called later La
campanella and became so popular that Paganini played it
without the preceding movements.
From 1828 to 1830 Paganini toured Austria and Germany. Schubert
one of his concerts in Vienna and said
he had “heard an
In Prague, he met Julius Schottky, who wrote the first biography of
Paganini, published in 1830 (by the way, I'd really love to see a
description of him by a contemporary, I love this sort of books. It's
only in German, I wish I could read it. If you can and are interested,
you can find it here
Between 1829 and 1830 in Germany Paganini gave
more than 100
concerts in 40 towns. There he met Spohr, Hummel, Schumann and his wife
Clara and Goethe. Even though he was so busy with concerts and
travelling, he managed to compose his 4th violin
concerto and two more sets of variations.
Paganini wrote many sets of variations.
They were the perfect way to display the endless musical and technical
possibilities of the violin, thanks to his imagination and skills. In
the variations on God save the king,
Paganini uses a lot of left hand pizzicato, something quite unheard of.
In 1831 Nicolò Paganini gave his first concert in Paris. It was a great
event, despite the ticket prices were doubled the theatre was full. I
think it was a shame that Berlioz
missed it, he was in Italy at that time. Later he went to London,
toured Ireland, Scotland and then went back to Paris. He wrote his
friend Germi that in one year he had given 151 concerts and travelled
5000 miles (in those times, by coach!).
Both in Paris and London the reactions were the
same, all the
press praised him as the “finest player ever existed”.
Between 1832 and 1834 Paganini became interested
in the viola
as a solo instrument.
In a private concert in London he played a Terzetto for viola, cello
and guitar (Mendelssohn played the guitar part on the piano).
While in Paris, in 1833 Paganini heard Berlioz’s
Fantastic Symphony at a concert and congratulated Berlioz about it.
Some weeks after this concert Paganini told Berlioz about a big Stradivari
viola he had and asked Berlioz to write a concerto for him to
play this viola. This was the origin of Harold
When the first movement was complete Paganini wanted to see
it. He was a bit disappointed because, noticed that there were too many
rests. Paganini didn’t like it and never played it, although a few
years later, in 1838, he heard it in a concert conducted by Berlioz and
loved it. He was so impressed
by it, he said, never as touched as by Harold, that sent Berlioz a
letter saying “My dear friend, Beethoven being dead only
Berlioz could make him live again...”, including a cheque for
Click the picture to
listen to the Introduction
Wishing to play his Stradivari and having refused
work, Paganini had to write one himself. This led to the composition of
the Sonata per la Grand’Viola
and orchestra, another work where Paganini again makes use of a
Reecitativo and a set of variations to display all his exceptional
qualities, exploring the whole tonal range and applying on the viola
the same virtuoso technique that had made him famous.
His performance in London in 1834 was received
appreciation for his playing but reserves about the viola as a solo
instrument (they were not yet ready for it...).
Most of his works for violin and orchestra were
published in his life and some are lost because he thought he was the
only one who could play them. Also another reason was the lack
a composer could either sell his works to a publisher (after which
anybody else could have copied or performed them), or play them himself
and make money out of it. Anyway, it has been worked out that Paganini
in one year earned so much that he could have bought 300 kilos of gold.
In the last years of
his life Paganini had some misadventures that made his life bitter. In
London he had fallen in love with
the daughter of his pianist and wanted to marry her secretly in Paris.
There was a scandal, reported on the press both in France and England
and Paganini had to spend long time writing letters to newspapers to
defend himself. This was not the first one of his troubled
Earlier in Parma he
had been living with a young girl whose father then charged him with
abduction, which caused Paganini to spend some days in prison.
He went back to Italy, conducting the orchestra in
with Beethoven’s Fidelio but there were disagreements about his plans
to reorganise the orchestra.
Again in Paris, he was involved in the creation of
a new music
establishment, Casino Paganini, where he was supposed to give concerts
twice a week. Because of his bad health he wasn’t able to fulfill his
commitment and the casino failed. After losing a proceeding for breach
of contract he had to pay a large sum.
In Nice, which was part of Italy at that time, he
dealer in musical instruments and invested large sums buying them. When
his health worsened, his son called a priest but Paganini sent him
away, the last incident of his unconventional character. The bishop
charged him with impiety and forbade a religious funeral. He died in
Nice in 1840, and there one day, by accident, I found this plaque that
SINCE FROM THIS HOUSE
ON THE 27TH OF MAY 1840
THE SPIRIT OF NICOLÒ PAGANINI
REJOINED THE SOURCES OF THE ETERNAL HARMONY
THE BOW, CAPABLE OF MAGICAL NOTES, LIES
BUT IN THE GENTLE BREEZES OF NICE
STILL LIVES ITS SUPREME SWEETNESS
In the following pages you will read about
Serenata, for viola,
cello and guitar
Quartet n.15, for viola
concertante, violin, cello and guitar