Paganini, Niccolo: (on) Duos for Violin and Guitar

By any recent standards for the presentation and reception of violin playing, it is simply impossible to measure the sensation of Niccolò Paganini. The royalty of Europe showered him with praise, titles, and gilded snuff-boxes; an incredulous public filled hall after hall beyond capacity; and the newspapers of Europe ran almost completely out of adjectives. Hyperbole was the consensus.

In Vienna (where the only competitor for public attention was the new giraffe at the Schönbrunn zoo):

Geniuses of this kind are the frontier guards of epochs, the wardens of the marches in the history of art; they are the law-givers whose appearance often causes ferments which, however, ennoble the old mixture with new ingredients.

In Dresden:

It may honestly be affirmed that no virtuoso on any instrument has ever been so genuinely humorous as Paganini; and none other has ever understood how to unite this with the pert expression of coquetry, the teasing mood, the sound of deep sorrow, and the most agonizing heartache ; With justice he may be designated as a Shakespeare among artists.

In Paris:

It was truly the revelation of a new world; it was art in its most varied and striking manifestations.

In London:

Paganini’s arrival ; was enough to make the greater part of the fiddling tribe commit suicide.

Wherever Paganini went to play, it wasn’t just a concert; it was a crisis of language.
Shadowing these stuttering encomiums there ran a strain of mythology which painted him in diabolical and criminal colors (which was, in its way, also an excellent review). Like Robert Johnson in the Mississippi delta, he was rumored to have made otherworldly arrangements with the devil in exchange for unearthly abilities on strings; he was also said to have spent time in jail for murder. Paganini’s cadaverous appearance easily outdid his reported good nature as he tried to counter these rumors, and any protest he put forth only reinforced them further. That said, there was always a sense of mystery about him, and the guitar and violin duos come from a strange and undocumented period in Paganini’s life – precisely the portion during which some said he was practising (desperately, on one remaining string) in prison. It was true that as a touring violinist he had made some errors, having wandered into any number of brothels, and having lost a fine violin while gambling. However, rather than landing in jail, he seems to have landed in Tuscany, at the home of an as-yet-unrevealed aristocratic patroness known as ‘Dida’. She set him to a rather stricter regimen than he had been following while on tour, and had him lay the violin aside a while. In the evenings, he played guitar (learning very well very quickly, as one might imagine), and taught her to play also. It is likely that these duos were written for the two of them. While this Tuscan reality is hardly supernatural or infernal, it does have a certain air of the incredible about it, even if only the incredibly pastoral (and perhaps slightly Corleonic). But this was consistent with so many things in Paganini’s life, beginning and ending with the concerts: those who didn’t see him didn’t believe the accounts of him, and those who did see him couldn’t believe their own eyes.

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