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Quartet No. 15 in A minor for Guitar, Violin, Viola and Cello

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Nicolò Paganini
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players play Boccherini, Paganini & Mozart Sun., Jun. 3, 2012, 2:00 PM
© Richard Rodda

In a time when public relations and international marketing were barely flickering ideas in the thoughts of the most prescient entrepreneur, Nicolò Paganini knew the value of a spicy tale in enhancing his worldly reputation. In 1828 in Prague, where he had gone for concerts and dental surgery, Paganini met the German musicologist and folksong researcher Julius Schottky, adopted him as his "official biographer," and told him the story of his life. Some of it was true. Among the most titillating episodes made up by Paganini (who fancied himself irresistible to women when he was young) was one taken as gospel by all of his biographers through the 1950s - the yarn of the mysterious "lady of rank." The influential Belgian critic, teacher, musicologist and composer François-Joseph Fétis summarized the tale in his Notice Biographique sur Nicolò Paganini, published in Paris in 1851: "Although Paganini was still in the prime of youth [nineteen, supposedly], and had known nothing but success and profit, the violin lost its attraction in his eyes. A lady of rank having fallen desperately in love with him, and the feeling being reciprocated, he withdrew with her to an estate she possessed in Tuscany. This lady played the guitar, and Paganini imbibed a taste for that instrument, and applied himself sedulously to its practice. During a period of three years, he devoted all the energies of his mind to its study, and to agricultural pursuits, for which the lady's estate afforded him ample opportunities." Paganini declined to name the lady or her estate, nor have they been revealed by extensive subsequent research. During the years in question, from 1801 to 1804, Paganini was actually based in Lucca, where he taught, concertized, composed and served as concertmaster of the local orchestra with such success that he was taken into the court musical establishment as violinist and teacher when Napoleon turned the rule of the city that his forces had captured in 1799 over to his sister Elise and her violin-playing husband, Felix Baciocchi, in 1805. That his three-year affair with the mysterious "lady of rank" has not been brought to light while his intimate relationship with the Princess Elise has (it was unspecified whether the diamond ring she once gave him was for his musical or amatory services) indicates the factual flimsiness of the story. In 1810, he quit Lucca to begin the international tours that secured his reputation.

Whatever the circumstances of his life during the first decade of the 19th century - documentary sources are few - Paganini had by then developed considerable skill on the guitar, the day's most popular instrument for home entertainment in Italy (his earliest known composition is a set of variations for violin and guitar on the French revolutionary song Carmagnola from 1795, when he was thirteen), and he composed prolifically for it: some sixty sonatas for guitar and violin, fifteen quartets for violin, viola, cello and guitar, and a Duetto Amoroso for violin and guitar. Except for his daunting Caprices for solo violin, the only compositions that he allowed to be published during his lifetime were four collections of these chamber pieces with guitar. Though he never played it in public and claimed that he valued it mostly "as a spur to creation or to work out some special harmonies that I can't produce on the violin," he continued to write for guitar throughout his life, producing for it more than 200 solo and chamber works. He was the most important 19th-century composer for the instrument outside Spain.

The Quartet No. 15 for Guitar and Strings in A minor of 1820 was the last of Paganini's works in the form and the most extraordinary, eschewing an integrated ensemble texture in favor of according an almost concerto-like prominence to the viola. Though he founded his reputation on the brilliance and agility of the violin, Paganini harbored a special fondness for the dark throatiness of the viola, including it in all of his chamber compositions and writing for it a Sonata per la Grand Viola in 1834, playing a few concerts on a large-scale specimen in London in the 1830s, and commissioning Hector Berlioz to compose Harold in Italy for the instrument in 1833 (a piece that Paganini admired but refused to perform himself because the solo part was not showy enough).

The viola takes charge immediately at the outset of the Quartet by appropriating the dramatic main theme, a melody of wide leaps, sharp rhythms and stern emotion presented above a skeletal accompaniment in the other instruments. A brilliant solo passage in broken chords leads to the lyrical second theme, set high in the viola's compass. Violin and viola share more equally in the development section, and the violin is assigned the main theme in the recapitulation, though the viola provides an animated counterpoint. Once the viola has reclaimed the second theme, however, it does not relinquish its importance for the remainder of the movement. The second movement is a Minuetto built around a close-order "canon" - i.e., a melody in exact imitation, like Row, Row, Row Your Boat - between viola and violin above a simple background in cello and guitar; the guitar claims its only featured moment in the Quartet in the central trio. The viola gets to play operatic mezzo-soprano in the next two movements, a flamboyant Recitativo declaimed against an agitated accompaniment and a tender wordless aria marked Adagio cantabile. The violin trades phrases with the viola and even takes the lead in one of the central episodes in the Gypsy-flavored Rondo that provides the work's spirited close.