In the 1800s (aka the Romantic period of classical music), Europe saw the rise of the popular solo instrumentalists (“rock stars” of the Romantic period). One of the most famous musicians from this period was virtuoso Nicolò Paganini (1782 – 1840), who established an entrepreneurial model for musicians—touring, marketing, celebrity, and persona—that other musicians would follow for the rest of the century.
What makes someone a virtuoso?
They must excel at playing an instrument and perform in a flashy manner. A virtuoso often showcases their talent through loosely structured, improvisational music (Dahlhaus 1989, 137). They often get their ideas from performers before them; for example, Paganini based his virtuosic display on the style of Franco-Polish violinist Auguste Frédéric Durand after seeing him perform in 1795 (Kenneson 1998, 69). Paganini became known for “his breathtaking speed, spectacular multiple stops, strange harmonics, left-hand pizzicatos, and single-string playing” (Plantinga 1984, 174).
Paganini showcased these skills by almost exclusively performing his own compositions that were tailored to his playing style (Kenneson 1998, 69). One famous example is his set of Twenty-four Caprices, which are exceptionally challenging etudes. In addition to having musical skill, Paganini had mystique that made him famous as well. He was prone to being gossiped about: people felt that he was unnaturally (perhaps supernaturally) talented via witchcraft, Satanism, or the like (Dahlhaus 1989, 139). Paganini bought into this edgy persona, often dressing in black at his performances. Knowing that he could profit from this attention (after all, there is no such thing as bad publicity!), Paganini toured through Italian cities, Austria, Germany, Poland, and other European regions between 1810 – 1834 (Neill 2001).
Pianists picked up on this and began to tour like Paganini. In fact, the name “Paganini” became a descriptor for other virtuosic performers (Puslowski 2014, 39). Other virtuosi were called a “[insert nationality or adjective] Paganini.” Pianist Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) was dubbed a “veritable Paganini” and pianist Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) was called a “second Paganini” (Puslowski 2014, 39). Liszt profited from this model, as did Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) in the next century. In the summer of 1934, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Norris 2001). He was one of many composers to draw upon Paganini’s themes (see Liszt’s etude based on Paganini’s concerto La Campanella). By choosing to namedrop Paganini in a composition, Rachmaninoff and others did so in part as a selling point. If a piece uses Paganini’s music in some way, one might assume the piece is good. Come find out for yourself and listen to Rachmaninoff’s piece at our Masterworks I concert!
Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)
Dahlhaus, Carl. 1989 Nineteenth-Century Music. Translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kennenson, Claude. 1998. “High Venture: Niccolò Paganini.” In Musical Prodigies: Perilous Journeys, Remarkable Lives, 66-76. Portland: Amadeus Press.
Neill, Edward. 2001. “Paganini, Nicolò.” Oxford Music Online.
Norris, Geoffrey. 2001. “Rachmaninoff [Rachmaninov], Serge [Sergey] (Vasil’yevich). Oxford Music Online.
Puslowski, Xavier Jon. 2014. “Paganini and His Crucial Influence.” In Franz Liszt, His Circle, and His Elusive Oratorio, 39-50. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.