On Virtuosity

Nicolò Paganini (image taken from Wikipedia.org)

Niccolò Paganini (1819), by Ingres – image taken from Wikipedia.org

Attaining virtuoso status is elusive and exclusive; a virtuoso is someone who has achieved the highest level of technical skill on their instrument, while also attaining the height of musicality. Showmanship, charisma and innate ability factor in as well.

Nicolò (or Niccolò) Paganini (1782-1840), is considered by many to be the greatest violinist of all time. He was so amazing that his audiences thought he was demonic. It was rumored in his day that when he was six, his mother made a pact with the devil to trade his soul for a career as the greatest violinist in the world. He was once forced to publish letters from his mother to prove he had human parents. He would pull off stunts to show his astonishing ability, like severing strings on his violin so that they would break during a performance, then continuing to play on the remaining strings.

The Music Department at CLP – Main has a few different editions of the music score to one of his most famous compositions, a notoriously difficult series of pieces to play: 24 Caprices for Violin Solo, Op. 1, composed between 1805 to 1809. The Music Department routinely obtains various editions of music scores with different editors who have diverse takes on how to play the pieces. Below are examples of Caprice No.5 in A minor (Agitato). The little numbers above the notes are the fingers you are supposed to use. Other marks denote accents and other technical aspects of how it is to be played. Look closely and you can see each has subtle but distinct differences.

24 Caprices for Violin Solo, Opus 1. International edition 1973, edited by Ivan Galamian.

2-int ed

From the International edition

Twenty-four Caprices for the Violin. : [Op. 1] – G. Schirmer edition 1941, edited by Harold Berkley.

3 - schir

From the G. Schirmer edition

Just for reference, here is the same piece in Paganini’s own hand. He supposedly was able to play this using just one string.

24 [i.e. Ventiquattro] Capricci Op. 1 : per Violino : Facsimile Dell’autografo.

1 fac

From the facsimile edition

Now listen to them! One of the music streaming services that CLP offers is the “Classical Music Library” from Alexander Street Press. Follow the links for remote access here: http://carnegielibrary.org/eCLP/music/. There are 10 different recordings of the full 24 for solo violin. You can open each one in a different tab to compare and contrast the individual performances.

Who played it best? First of all, bravo on being able to play these at all, and being good enough to record them. Who am I to judge you? Just an active listener who knows what she likes. I am looking for artistry, tone, technical prowess and that je ne sais quoi.

Here are my three favorite:

Itzhak Perlman (Warner Music, 2005) recorded in 1972, Massimo Quarta (Chandos, 2005) recorded in 2002, and Marco Rogliano (Tactus, 2004) recorded in 2000.

Do you have aspirations to become a virtuoso on the violin? You have to start somewhere. Practice, practice, practice!



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5 responses to “On Virtuosity

  1. Extremely interesting! I love classical music. I’m not very familiar with Paganini’s work; but I do love the violin! Thank you for a great post :)

  2. Even though I can’t read musical notations, I still enjoyed this post.

  3. Also: violinist Regina Carter is the only jazz violinist to play Paganini’s actual violin. Are you familiar with her? She’s one of my favorites!

  4. Joelle

    Thanks for the replies! I will have to listen to Regina Carter!

  5. Pingback: November 2015 Recap | Eleventh Stack

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