‘A blazing comet’ was how Hector Berlioz described Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini. So faultless was his playing that many were convinced he had made a pact with the devil – a theory substantiated by his somewhat ghoulish stage persona.
The music he composed and performed throughout the early 19th century completely altered people’s perceptions of what could be done on a violin. His dazzling collection of techniques and special effects would often drive members of his audience to hysteria.
There were ghostly multiple harmonics (achieved by touching several strings very lightly), a ricochet bow-stroke that enabled him to play rapid sequences of notes at once, and high-velocity pizzicatos plucked by a spare finger in the left hand.
These virtuosic displays were in part possible due to his suffering from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which gave him the ability to negotiate the violin at extraordinary speed without changing position. The 12 hours of practice a day might have also had something to do with it.
However, beneath the showmanship lies a music firmly rooted in the Italian tradition. Paganini’s instinct for singable melody gives his compositions an accessibility that proves irresistible. It also explains why so many were inspired to compose variations on his music. The main theme from the 24th Caprice, for example, was developed by Brahms, Rachmaninov, Lutosławski and even Andrew Lloyd Webber.
We’ve put together a list of what we believe to be his six greatest compositions.
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1. Violin Concerto No. 1 (1818)
Paganini’s First Violin Concerto comprises all the pioneering techniques he developed while on tour in his home country of Italy.
Through a clever sleight of hand with the music's key and the violin's tuning, Paganini made sure that the solo line shone out from the orchestra. While the orchestral parts are in the key of E flat major, the violin part was written in D major with instructions for the violin's strings to be tuned up a semitone.
This use of scordatura allowed Paganini to write a part that had the freedom of D major – a comfortable and versatile key on a violin. The greater tension in the strings, combined with a higher proportion of notes played on open strings, has the effect of making the violin sing more clearly than its orchestral accompaniment.
It became popularised in a version entirely written in D major.
Recommended recording: Hilary Hahn/Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Eiji Oue
2. 24 Caprices for Solo Violin (1802-1817)
Written in the form of Etudes - short, solo works of extreme difficulty designed to perfect a particular element of playing – the 24 Caprices remain to this day an imposing prospect to all but the bravest of concert violinists.
Countless arrangements have since been made, for various combinations of instruments. There is a complete set for solo flute by Patrick Gallois, for example, while No. 24 was arranged for clarinet and jazz band by Benny Goodman.
Recommended recording: James Ehnes
3. Moses Fantasy (1818)
Paganini was giving a concert when one by one his violin's strings began to break, so the tale goes, until all that remained for him to play on was the lowest, G string. Far from putting him off, the mishap inspired the virtuoso to write his Moses Fantasy, based on Rossini's opera Mosè in Egitto, and written exclusively for the G string,
This performance direction has struck fear into the hearts of violinists ever since. But when performers adhere to it, the audience is treated to the rich sonority that can only be achieved by playing on the thicker G string.
Recommended recording: Nemanja Radulović
4. Centone di Sonate, Vol. 1 (1828-29)
'The violin is my mistress but the guitar is my master,' Paganini is once reported to have said. He often wrote for the guitar, and this collection of sonatas for violin and guitar marks a period of maturity in his compositional output.
Written during a stay in Prague, the music relies less on the fireworks and bombast of his youth, and more on a sense of compositional finesse. The gentle melodies and jolly guitar accompaniment evoke a sense of Mediterranean calm.
Recommended recording: Moshe Hammer/Norbert Kraft
5. Moto perpetuo (1835)
Towards the end of his life Paganini composed the Moto perpetuo as a response to his failing health, and its effect on the flexibility of his left hand. The piece is more about stamina and co-ordination than athletic prowess, although with its breathless, unceasing flow of semiquavers, it is still numbered among his most difficult.
Originally written for violin and piano, the work remained unpublished until after his death in 1840, and didn’t enter the standard repertoire until 1932 when Fritz Kreisler made a transcription for violin and piano.
Recommended recording: Ivan Pochekin/Russian Philharmonic/Dmitry Yablonsky
6. Variations on God Save the King (1829)
In writing a piece based on the British national anthem, Paganini joins a host of composers who have paid musical tribute to the UK monarchy.
Beethoven, Rossini, Liszt and even Charles Ives have all had a crack at arranging this tune, although some have been more sincere in their borrowing than others. Paganini’s furiously difficult set of variations is full of extended techniques.
Recommended recording: Leonidas Kavakos
Read our full review of this recording here.
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Words by: Timmy Fisher
Paganini is the subject of our cover feature in the November 2018 issue, which is on sale now.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.