Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) – The Guitar Behind The Violin

by Pascal Proust

A portrait of Paganini playing his Stradivarius

A portrait of Paganini playing his Stradivarius.

Niccolò Paganini (whose first name is also spelled Nicolò or Nicolo) is definitely one of the greatest musicians of all time, first renowned as an outstanding violin virtuoso and a tremendous entertainer on stage, but also as an innovative and creative artist who inspired lots of musicians and artists beyond the boundaries of the violin world. His 24 Caprices for solo violin remain his most famous works and are certainly among the most challenging works ever written for violin. There is no doubt that Paganini was a gifted musician, with a unique technique and a remarkable charisma, making him an unrivaled virtuoso of the violin. Besides his talent for the violin, he also played the guitar, for which he showed a lot of interest as he composed many pieces for this instrument. However, even if Paganini is first remembered as a great violin performer and composer, his guitar works do deserve to be brought to the foreground. [Caprices written for guitar Vol 1 and Vol 2]

By the turn of 19th century, and quite all along Paganini’s life, the guitar was a very trendy instrument, which was particularly en vogue in bourgeoisie and aristocracy in Europe. The lutherie of the instrument evolved to look almost like the modern classical guitar, equipped with six strings but with a tinier body (today, this type of guitar is called romantic guitar). The guitar became more powerful, more expressive and its playing techniques, notation and tuition improved. Therefore, it became one of the instruments of a “good education” – which could be a reason why Paganini learned how to play it as a child along with the violin. All these new qualities and features changed the guitar into a charming and entertaining solo instrument, largely thanks to great guitar virtuosos at the time such as Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, Ferdinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi or Dionisio Aguado.

Illustrations from La Guitaromanie, a collection of pieces for the guitar composed by Charles de Marescot, ca. 1820.Illustrations from La Guitaromanie, a collection of pieces for the guitar composed by Charles de Marescot, ca. 1820.

Paganini was brought up in a modest family of music enthusiasts in Genoa, Italy (Republic of Genoa at the time). Little Niccolò started studying music on the mandolin at the age of 5, taught by his father, Antonio Paganini, a docker running a shipping business and also an amateur mandolin and violin player. Due to his son’s remarkable abilities for music, Antonio Paganini decided to teach him the violin two years later. 7-year-old Niccolò may have had no consciousness of his outstanding gift for this instrument, and he had no choice but to obey anyway. Indeed, his father was an avaricious, austere and severe man who forced his talented son to study and practice the violin more than enough for a young child. Besides, due to the Paganinis’ financial troubles as the family was struggling to run his trading business properly, Antonio Paganini put all his hopes into his gifted son in order to make him a professional violin virtuoso. But he would be rapidly outrun by his little prodigy. “When I attained my seventh year, my father, whose ear was unmusical but who was nevertheless passionately fond of music, gave me my elementary lessons on the violin; in a very few months, I was able to play all manner of compositions at sight” Niccolò Paganini would state later, remembering his childhood. After two years of home lessons, lots of tutors followed one another, many of them being unable to teach the young Paganini the usual way, feeling kind of overwhelmed by his highly advanced abilities. There is no actual evidence the young Niccolò studied the guitar at that time. However, it seems that he certainly did as music tuition included the study of various instruments besides the main one, in order to learn matters such as harmony and composition for example, and as the guitar was part of good education. What is sure is that the young virtuoso was bound to favor the violin anyway, although he wouldn’t leave the guitar aside in the long run as a performer and a composer.

Small violin on which Niccolò Paganini studied

The text in French on this photo states: « Small violin on which Niccolò Paganini studied and played, when he was still a child, his first concertos at Sant’ Agostino theater of Genoa. It belongs to Baron Attila Paganini, grand-son of the immortal vioinist. Parma, Italy.» (source : Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris).

Paganini’s precocity for music was due to a brilliant intellect but also to uncommon physical skills. He had indeed morphological predispositions as his hands were extraordinarily flexible. This characteristic, in addition to his fragile health all along his life, have made many people think Paganini may have actually suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue, and some symptoms of which are ligament hyperlaxity and highly flexible joints. Besides, it seems Paganini had also a very accurate hearing. Therefore, despite his weak condition, the young Paganini took advantage from his intellectual and physical abilities in order to develop an outstanding virtuosity very early. His skinny and pale appearance – probably due to Marfan syndrome too – made him look somewhat intriguing and attractive on stage. By the way, compared to the guitar, the violin would then be a better concert instrument than the guitar, strengthening Paganini’s stage character, allowing him to move around to capture the audience even more.

Daguerréotype of Paganini, taken ca. 1840.

Daguerréotype of Paganini, taken ca. 1840.

Nevertheless, during his concerts, Paganini played the guitar along with the violin very often as a soloist or in duet, in particular with Italian guitarist Luigi Legnani (1790-1877) – who was also called “the Paganini of the guitar” by the way. Paganini and Legnani met in Genoa in 1835 and performed a few concerts together. Both were very much acquainted as Paganini composed his Grand Sonata (MS 3) in A major for guitar with violin accompaniment, which he dedicated to Legnani. This piece in three movements is certainly one of Paganini’s most relevant guitar works, in which the guitar is brilliantly leading, discreetly accompanied by simple violin parts. This feature allowed Paganini and Legnani to swap their instruments in concert in order to perform this piece: as a basic violinist, Legnanani could then easily accompany his friend playing the guitar.

One of the numerous caricatures of Paganini playing the violin.

One of the numerous caricatures of Paganini playing the violin.

The guitar part of this Grand Sonata is rich, complex, technically demanding, and requires some mastery to perform it. Therefore, as Paganini used to play it, this shows us that he was indeed a very good guitarist too. Of course, although he may not have reached the same virtuosity as on the violin, there is no doubt he had great skills for the guitar to play it at quite a high level.

Luigi Legnani (1790-1877).

Luigi Legnani (1790-1877).

In addition to stage performance, Paganini also showed an obvious interest for the guitar given the very large number of the works he composed for this instrument. Though most of his pieces for guitar solo are somewhat simple, his Grand Sonata along with all his chamber music works for guitar and strings are definitely brilliant and worth the interest.

Once Paganini passed away, the craze for the guitar declined dramatically. Guitar concerts were less and less organized, and even guitar sheet music was getting rare as many publishers were no longer interested in pieces for this instrument. Moreover, after Paganini’s death in 1840 in Nice, France, the manuscripts of his guitar works were given to the Italian government, who kept this collection locked in for many years. But, even if Paganini’s guitar works were shelved for a very long while, they did survive him however.

Manuscript fragment of guitar pieces written by Paganini.

Manuscript fragment of guitar pieces written by Paganini.

If we look at his full list of works, we can notice that Paganini actually wrote a lot of compositions comprising the guitar. Among the 134 opuses listed in Moretti and Sorrento’s catalog (MS numbering from Catalogo tematico delle musiche di Niccolò Paganini, Genoa, 1982) 77 of them include the guitar, totalizing more than 200 pieces for solo guitar, mandolin and guitar, violin and guitar, and guitar and strings. Paganini’s passion for the guitar was genuine besides his works, as shown for instance by his Jean-Nicolas Grobert guitar given to his friend, famous French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) after Paganini passed away. Berlioz played the guitar too – “The guitar is a small orchestra” he wrote in his famous book Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration – and admired Paganini very much.

Guitar that belonged to Paganini and then to Berlioz, made by Jean-Nicolas Grobert (1794-1866) in Paris, France, ca. 1830. Musée de la musique of Paris. Photos by Richard Lambert.

Guitar that belonged to Paganini and then to Berlioz, made by Jean-Nicolas Grobert (1794-1866) in Paris, France, ca. 1830. Musée de la musique of Paris. Photos by Richard Lambert.

In 1866, Berlioz gave this guitar – autographed by Paganini and himself – to the Musée instrumental du Conservatoire of Paris and is now displayed in the Musée de la musique of the French capital city, among lots of prestigious and remarkable period guitars. Nowadays, most of Paganini’s guitar works are reissued by publishers and a lot of guitarists keep performing and recording them. For sure, guitar music composed by Niccolò Paganini is very much far from being left over behind his violin virtuosity, to our greatest delight.

“The violin is my mistress, but the guitar is my master.” – Niccolò Paganini.

 
 


Pascal Proust

Pascal Proust

Mainly slef-taught, Pascal Proust (b. 1974) started to play the guitar around the age of 6, with his father’s classical guitar, on which he learns his first chords. Around the age of 14, he gets to learn the guitar more seriously, through all the ranges of this instrument, on acoustic and electric guitars, while going deeper in the learning of music theory and harmony with various books. All along his teenage he studies lots of styles of music like blues, jazz, rock, folk music, and then discovers ragtime and Latin-American music later on. Years later, thanks to composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Ernesto Nazareth, he decides to focus mainly on classical music and classical guitar. Beyond playing the guitar, Pascal Proust is fond of transcribing and arranging, and besides music he has also worked in electronics and now teaches English for aeronautics. Since December 2015, Pascal Proust has been writing reviews for French magazine Guitare Classique, and he also has three books of arrangements for guitar published by Éditions L’Empreinte Mélodique : Scott Joplin – Trois ragtimes (2018, transcriptions for three guitars) and Ernesto Nazareth – Trois tangos de Janeiro (2019, transcriptions for solo guitar, performed in concert by French guitarist Nicolas Lestoquoy) and Scott Joplin – Trois Valses (2020, transcriptions for solo guitar).

One thought on “Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) – The Guitar Behind The Violin

  1. The evolving social stigma of the guitar is here unremarked! According to Grunfeld (1969) Paganini, quite poor, earned money for his place in violin school by accompanying richer students with the guitar. I imagine that the richer less gifted students missed no chance to diss their virtuosic accompanist. Later in life Paganini was very reluctant to play the guitar in public because of its lesser place on the social scale. He did however pay a prominent violinist to come to his apartment to jam while he played guitar. In performance he preferred to be accompanied by a guitar but kept the relationship clear – the violin was the aristocrat, the guitar not! His guitarist was often the famous Legnani if I remember correctly and the famous guitar sonata, originally a duet with violin, is anecdotally a response to Legnani’s entreaties to switch instruments in concert to for once have the limelight. Much to Paganini’s amusement the violin was relegated to an accompanying role nowadays simply absorbed into the guitar part. Remember that the guitar was for most of Paganini’s life passe – supplanted in society’s public and domestic musical life by first the harp and then the suddenly affordable mass produced piano. The best people simply did not play it seriously any more and Paganini wanted to move in the high paying best circles.


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