Thursday, January 12, 2012

Paganini - Violin Concerto No. 4

The modern day equivalent of the mania that Paganini (and Liszt) experienced would be the attention rock stars receive. Paganini was a brilliant violinist that almost single-handedly  transformed violin technique, but he was also a great showman.  The clothes he wore on stage, the 'tricks' he did with the violin such as imitating barn yard animals, and the mystique brought about by the legend that he gained his playing skills by trading his soul to the devil, all added to the general clamor and hysteria of audiences that heard him.

But there was more to the man than a brilliant violinist and charismatic stage presence. He was a very good composer with a gift for melody. Both Berlioz and Rossini admired his compositions. But Paganini's attitude toward his music did not do much for its popularity. Paganini didn't publish any of his violin concertos in his lifetime. He guarded his compositions closely, only letting the orchestra see the music the day of the concert at rehearsal and the performance, then he would at the end of the concert gather up all the parts and take them with him. He basically wrote the concertos for his use and his use only.

In an age that saw music as a very current event, Paganini constantly needed something different for his concerts. Paganini's orchestra can sometimes seem like nothing more than an accompaniment, but after all, they were written to showcase his violin playing.  Also, Paganini was not a piano player as so many other composers were. He could play the violin, viola and the guitar. Berlioz also played the guitar, and this no doubt influenced Paganini as it did Berlioz. Composer/pianists tend to favor harmonies as laid out on the keyboard while composer/guitar players would favor harmonies spread further apart because of the nature of the instrument. The guitar is also capable of a great deal of tone color depending on which string is used to play a given note.

The 4th Violin concerto begins with the usual orchestral exposition of the main themes of the movement. The opening theme is dramatic and grabs our attention. The second theme is more lyrical and light, and Italian in mood. The violin enters, and the fireworks begin and go throughout the movement. The second movement is a quasi-opera in its drama. The third movement has the violin utter the first theme to the accompaniment of a triangle. The orchestra dances, the violin joins in the dance and takes a few steps of its own before the concerto's brilliant ending.

To anyone familiar with Paganini's First and Second Violin Concertos,  some similarities are obvious.  But the reason audiences came to his concerts was to hear the greatest violinist of the age. Paganini knew what the crowd wanted, and he gave it to them. If it was in a form already familiar to them, all the better to be able to concentrate on his playing.