Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Paganini - Violin Concerto No. 1

 Niccolo Paganini wrote his first violin concerto in 1817-1818 and the solo part shows that his dazzling technique was already in evidence. The audiences marveled at his technique and the new effects of violin playing he had developed.

Paganini was very secretive about his 'tricks of the trade' and didn't include the part for solo violin with the score. When he would play the concerto, only the orchestral parts would be given to the appropriate players and there was many times no rehearsal of the work. One of the tricks he used in the concerto was that the orchestra parts were written in E-flat major while his solo part was written in D major with his solo violin mistuned a semitone higher so that he was actually playing in E-flat. All of that is pretty confusing for the average listener, but in simple terms this trick allowed Paganini to play effects in E-flat that he couldn't with an ordinary tuning and it also helped the violin to be in a greater tonal contrast with the orchestra.

The concerto shows the influence of Italian Opera of Paganini's time, specifically Rossini's operas and especially the Bel Canto style of singing in them. Paganini was accused of being less than a serious musician by some in his day for his tricks and going out of his way to please the crowd, but the seriousness of his intentions with this first concerto shows that he was, above everything else, a very skilled and passionate musician. 

I. Allegro maestoso - The concerto begins with the orchestra calling the listener to attention with loud chords, and then the themes are presented in the usual form of an exposition in sonata form. The orchestra plays for a relatively long time before the soloist enters, and the first theme is a rhythmic one that is highlighted by drums, brass and cymbals.  The soloist enters and takes up the themes and expands upon them considerably in form and ornament, while also adding new material.  There is another section for orchestra alone, which leads to the soloist joining the orchestra in loud chords as the beginning of the movement. The second theme is given a melancholy variation in the development section in a minor key, with many examples of the soloist playing alone using some of the techniques of violin playing that Paganini had devised and made famous.  The recapitulation has the soloist displaying the themes with more technical wizardry until a cadenza is played. After more razzle-dazzle from the soloist in the cadenza, the orchestra returns and closes out the movement with the themes that opened it.

II. Adagio espressivo - the second movement shows the depth of feeling and how dramatic Paganini could be in his music. The orchestra plays a prelude for the entrance of the soloist, who plays an uncomplicated tune to pizzicato and bassoon accompaniment.  It is like listening to a mini-dramatic opera, with not any flashes and trickery of technique (at least not obvious ones). Paganini makes the violin sing like an opera singer.  The movement reaches a climax, and then the soloist returns to the long aria it is playing, with the orchestra giving a discreet accompaniment. The music grows in loudness as the music dwells in a major key for a section. This doesn’t last very long before the music turns to the minor again.  The brass plays loud chords that slowly grow quiet while the soloist gives ad answers to it. But at the very last, the music ends in a major key.

III. Rondo - Allegro spiritoso - The fireworks come back in the rondo finale as Paganini's bow ricochets off the violin strings as the soloist plays the theme. The theme is repeated to set it in the ear before new material is introduced. The first episode showcases the soloist in the higher register of the instrument in chords in harmonics. The movement is filled with impressive techniques as the rondo theme is played between episodes of new material. A short cadenza is played, and then soloist and orchestra approach the loud ending. 


  1. What instruments were used in this composition?

    1. It is scored for 2 flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoon and a double bassoon. Plus 2 horns, trumpets, 3 trombones, kettle drums, bass drum and cymbals and of course Strings.