The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto No. 1

About the Work

Nicolò Paganini Composer: Nicolò Paganini
© Peter Laki

Rossini could very well have been present when Paganini played his D-major Violin Concerto in Naples on March 31, 1819. Only four days earlier, he had introduced his latest opera, Ermione, in the same city. The "devil's fiddler" and the king of opera were friends; Paganini wrote variations on three famous Rossini arias, including the celebrated "Moses Phantasy."

Paganini wasn't called the "devil's fiddler" for nothing. He single-handedly revolutionized the technique of the instrument, performing feats that no one had previously thought ossible. His facility in executing rapid scale passages in double stops and the brilliance of his harmonics mystified even the best professional violinists. His very appearance (a tall, thin man with long hair, curly side-whiskers, a pale countenance and an aquiline nose) struck many contemporaries as rather eerie.

Yet Paganini's critics invariably stressed the fact that the artist transcended mere showmanship and possessed great emotional depth in his playing. The German poet Rellstab, listening to the D-major concerto in Leipzig, said of the Adagio: "I have never heard anyone weep like that in my life." Those who knew that Paganini was plagued by serious health problems felt they could hear the voice of suffering coming from the violin.

The first movement is an almost uninterrupted display of virtuoso fireworks that stop only occasionally to give the soloist a breather. The "weeping" second movement does not have a single double-stop or harmonic in it: it is a lyrical aria for violin that supposedly depicts a famous actor of the time delivering one of his most heart-rending speeches. The last movement, a rondo with a memorable main theme, brings back the fireworks.

It is interesting that Paganini originally notated the solo part in D major but the orchestral material in E-flat. This means that the violin had to be tuned a half-step higher than usual; the soloist played in D major but the music sounded in E flat. This scordatura lent an extra brightness to the sound. Nowadays, however, this practice is obsolete; the soloist plays in D with the usual tuning and the orchestral parts have been transposed down to that key as well.