The Kennedy Center

Terzetto Concertante in D major for Viola, Cello and Guitar

About the Work

Nicolò Paganini Composer: Nicolò Paganini
© Thomas May

As a young prodigy during an era of rapid change, Niccolò Paganini helped redefine the identity of a virtuoso in the context of emerging Romanticism. He paved the way for a new kind of hero worship and mystique attaching to the art of solo performance. These qualities would become inextricably bound up with the legend of musicians like Franz Liszt-who was inspired to brand himself "the Paganini of the piano" after witnessing the violinist in concert-and, closer to our own time, of rock superstars.

Yet along with his fiendish concertos and sets of caprices for the violin-the instrument with which he is most commonly identified-Paganini composed chamber music featuring the guitar in combination with bowed strings. The guitar ranked among the Italian musician's favorite instruments; indeed Paganini was known to write music not at the piano but while playing guitar. He wrote some 15 quartets for strings and guitar and numerous other pieces featuring the guitar, which was at the time a popular instrument for domestic music making-the purpose for which these pieces were intended.

The Terzetto concertante is a work of Paganini's mature period, written in 1833 (along with another trio for guitar, violin, and cello). Plagued by continual illness, he decided to abandon his own concertizing the following year. It was in London, on May 14, 1833, that the Terzetto received its first performance at the home of the Irish-born Dr. Archibald Billing, well-known amateur musician and pioneering physician.

That event has become a footnote in the biography of Felix Mendelssohn, who was also visiting London at the time. Since no guitarist was available, Mendelssohn dispatched the part from the keyboard at sight (as reported in one of the London papers). Paganini played his prized Stradivari viola. His fascination with that instrument would prompt him at the end of 1833, when he first met Hector Berlioz, to commission a viola concerto (which became Harold in Italy).*

Paganini characterizes this four-movement trio as a concertante work, with prominent solos given to each instrument, as well as a recurrent call-and-response treatment of material shared by the instruments. The guitar's sonority moreover creates a unique blend with the natural elegance of the viola and the frequently high-lying cello voice. At times the guitar functions as the bass for the other two strings; at others it takes the lead. (It is thought that Paganini's experiments with the guitar influenced his writing for the violin.)

The easy charm of Paganini's style here is immediately ingratiating. The second movement Minuet, launched by the guitar, reworks one of the tunes from the opening Allegro featuring that instrument. Though brief, the Adagio cantabile affectingly summons the intimacy of an operatic serenade. Here Paganini's choice of instrumentation has an irresistible allure. A rondo tailored as an energetically paced waltz serves as the finale. Paganini has fun with a chromatically slip-sliding, trilling passage that adds an almost surreal effect each time it recurs-including right before the coda, handily foregoing a reprise of the rondo theme itself.

The same London paper that praised Mendelssohn for stepping up to bat in this premiere-soiree remarked that "Paganini's performance on the tenor was of the true school: there were no tricks, no jumping and skipping, but all the passages were legitimately and beautifully played, as were those given to the violoncello by [Robert] Lindly. As a composition it reflected credit on the Signor; it was well conceived, scientifically written, and remarkably pleasing and effective."


[*Editor's Note: The Stradivari viola in question is a member of the group of instruments known as the "Paganini Strad Quartet." At one time the four instruments were owned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and were on loan to principal players of the National Symphony Orchestra. They are now owned by the Nippon Music Foundation and are on extended loan to the Tokyo String Quartet.]