NOVA Notes: 04.23.2017

Violins, Violas, and Virtuosi

Nicolò Paganini, the violinist whose technical command and compositional ingenuity would forever alter the art of his instrument, came from humble beginnings. He was born in Genoa in 1782. His father, Antonio, was a dock worker and amateur musician who delighted in giving young Nicolò violin and mandolin lessons. The child’s phenomenal talent was evident early: at the age of thirteen, Paganini’s public concerts earned enough money to fund his studies with Alessandro Rolla, one of the leading violinists in northern Italy. When Paganini arrived in Parma to begin his lessons, however, Rolla declared that there was nothing left to teach the young musician.

Paganini’s flamboyant performance style would have a profound impact on a society just beginning to embrace the public concert as a locus for bourgeois artistic enjoyment, and his technical prowess would fundamentally redefine what it meant to play the violin. Moreover, his compositions––all written to showcase his own playing––pulled revolutionary new sounds from the instrument. For instance, in an early set of variations (Carmagnola, based on a French revolutionary song and written when Paganini was only twelve), he specified that the violinist should play “organetto,” i.e., imitating the sound of a bagpipe by bowing on the bridge. He regularly utilized scordatura tuning (in which the strings of the violin are tuned to different pitches than the usual G-D-A-E); had the bridge of his Guarneri violin flattened so that he could easily play triple and even quadruple stops; and pioneered the technique of double harmonics.

At the time, Paganini’s works were considered unplayable by anyone other than the master himself. He also preferred to keep techniques such as the aforementioned double harmonics secret. As such, Paganini published only five collections during his lifetime. Of these, it is the set of twenty-four violin caprices, Op. 1, that remain his calling-card; today they are still considered diabolically difficult and a hallmark of any modern violinist’s repertoire. NOVA’s April 23 concert will feature three of the caprices, alongside works for violin and viola by Mozart, Bartók, and the young composer Eric Wubbels.

A daguerrotype of Paganini, circa 1840

In modern terms, Paganini’s unusual methods of producing sound on his instrument would be called “extended techniques,” i.e., modes of producing sound from an instrument that “extend” the instrument to include the entire body and all its material parts. The young composer Eric Wubbels makes extraordinary use of extended techniques in his quartet “IJver” for four violas. In fact, Wubbels’s program note begins with two quotes suggesting that his extended techniques are inspired by the technology of science fiction:

[Checklist for forming Voltron]

Keith: Ready to form Voltron! Activate interlocks! Dyna-therms connected. Infra-cells up; mega-thrusters are go!


- Voltron, Defender of the Universe

“Now, [this concept] is not mere emptiness. It is that which is living, dynamic, devoid of mass, unfixed, beyond individuality and personality— the matrix of all phenomena.”

- Haku-un Yasutani

As a citizen of the nineteenth century, Paganini’s career played out on the stages of public concert halls. A generation before, by contrast, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s career had taken place in the gilded palaces of the European aristocracy. The small boy, with his phenomenal talent and prodigious charm, was feted by kings and emperors, coddled by queens (he is said to have proposed marriage to Marie Antoinette at the age of seven), and showered with gifts. As the young Mozart approached adulthood, however, his marketability as a prodigy began to wane, and the family returned to their home town of Salzburg, where Mozart entered the employ of the Archbishop Hieronymous Colloredo. Mozart’s relationship with Colloredo was stormy at best, yet the stability of the Salzburg years gave him the opportunity to mature as a composer, and his position as the lead violinist of the court orchestra gave him a platform for writing solo works for the instrument. Between April and December 1775, he wrote no fewer than five violin concertos, of which the concerto in G Major, on NOVA’s upcoming concert, was the third.

It was not merely his difficult relationship with Colloredo, however, that made Mozart’s years in Salzburg unhappy: there was also the shadow cast by his domineering father. Finally, in 1781, Mozart broke away (he had been dismissed by Colloredo, he would later recall, “with a kick in the ass”), and made his way toward Vienna, where he would spend the last decade of his life. It is thus somewhat surprising that Mozart and his wife Costanze returned to Salzburg for several months at the end of 1783. The exact reason for the return is unknown; perhaps Mozart wished a reconciliation with his father. Alas, he was greeted with coldness, and his visit to Salzburg was rendered infinitely worse by the news that his infant son, who had remained in Vienna in the care of a nursemaid, had died while he and Costanze were away. Despite the difficulties, however, it was a musically fruitful visit for Mozart, and included the composition of two duos for violin and viola––for none other than Hieronymous Colloredo! In fact, the duos are two of a set of six that Colloredo had commissioned not from Mozart but from Michael Haydn, Salzburg court composer and brother to Franz Josef. Haydn had fallen ill before completing the final duos, and asked Mozart to complete the commission. Mozart, remembering the distinct lack of amicability in his parting from Colloredo, is said to have found it humorous that he was once again writing a work for the archbishop.

NOVA’s selections by Paganini and Mozart display the violin at its most virtuosic; the violin duos by Béla Bartók grew out of a project for students. In 1931, the pedagogue Erich Dorflein asked permission to use some of Bartók’s pieces in a collection of violin exercises Dorflein was preparing. Bartók was so intrigued by the request that he offered to write a set of duos for two violins that would draw on folk music from a wide range of cultures: Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Ukrainian, and even a kind of orientalized “Arabic.” Bartók had long drawn on folk songs in his compositions, and his repeated trips to the Eastern European countryside to catalogue and collect folk tunes (which he recorded on wax cylinders) set the groundwork for modern ethnomusicological research. Yet the violin duos also reflect another more overtly political project: on January 13, 1931, Bartók accepted an invitation to join the Permanent Committee for Literature and the Arts of the League of Nations’ Commission for Intellectual Co-operation. As a member of the commission, Bartók would spearhead efforts for musical research and preservation, as well as champion artistic and musical freedom. Only a few days before accepting this position, Bartók clearly articulated the importance of music in international peace efforts in a a letter to the Romanian diplomat Octavian Beu:

[I believe in] the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood in spite of all wars and conflicts. I try – to the best of my ability – to serve this idea in my music; therefore I don’t reject any influence, be it Slovak, Romanian, Arabic, or from any other source.

The idea of music reaching across international borders to foster peace and community is one that Mozart and Paganini, traveling virtuosi, would have recognized well.

Bartók (center) on a trip to collect rural folk songs.

––Kamala Schelling

Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series


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