Saturday, January 29, 2011

Paganini's Competition

In Paganini’s day, there may have been eight or nine other concert violinists who might have (theoretically) competed with him – Heinrich Ernst, Louis Spohr, Pierre Rode, Giovanni Viotti, Franz Clement, Charles DeBeriot, Pierre Baillot, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and, of course, Karol Lipinski.  That’s it.  All of these potential competitors spent a great deal of their time either teaching or conducting (or playing in) orchestras.  That circumstance left the field wide open for Paganini to exploit.  Even if Paganini was not the astonishing wizard everyone says he was, according to contemporary accounts, he was still the best.  (We do not now know exactly how Paganini sounded nor how well he played but we give him the benefit of the doubt.  If you’ve ever heard the recordings left by Joachim, Ysaye, Sarasate, Flesch, Enesco and other nineteenth century violinists said to be great in their day, you know how deficient they were in some ways, especially in their sound and intonation.)  In this day of sophisticated electronic gadgetry which can reproduce every note of any music score perfectly, we no longer readily forgive technical deficiencies in any violinist.  Nowadays, it is not easy for concert violinists to get established and generate steady concert dates - much more difficult than in Paganini’s time.  There are brilliant violinists all over the place, but, at the same time, only a limited number of open dates.  Of course, if there were no other artists around, it would be so much easier, but violinists have to contend with solo pianists, singers, cellists, horn players, oboe players, clarinet players, trumpet players, percussionists, trombone players, and even viola players, all of them wanting a bigger piece of the concert artist’s pie.  (I have only accompanied three solo violists since I was 16 – Roberto Diaz, Miles Hoffman, and Carolyn Kenneson.)  If it weren’t for teaching spots at music schools and universities, things would be tough indeed.  What does it take to stand out?  Charlie Rose, the interviewer, once asked Zubin Mehta what it was that made a great conductor and Mehta very wisely answered: “it’s not one thing, but a combination of things.”  Perhaps the same can be said of solo violinists.  Leaving the technical brilliance aside, however, I’m sure Paganini would have been very successful in our age.  After all, he was an expert, intuitive showman.  We simply would not be able to ignore him.  In his own day, he scandalized polite society by his lifestyle – as did also Vivaldi, Wagner, Chopin, Liszt, Eugene Goossens, Bronislaw Huberman, Olga Rudge, and a few others.  And, it has been said by people who know about these things, that there is no such thing as bad publicity - we can put two and two together. While there may be many obscure (but great) violinists in our own time – some more obscure than others - nevertheless, let us not forget that Eugene Ysaye, Vasa Prihoda, Albert Sammons, Alfredo Campoli, Jacques Thibaud, and Zino Francescatti were also quite unknown at some point, even after they had proved their exceptional playing abilities.  Then, out of nowhere it seems, they got lucky. (Photo courtesy of violinist Allegra Artis)


  1. I like the picture :) very nice. Thanks for using it :)

  2. Thank you Ms Artis. It won't be the last time, I am sure. :-)