On Paganini – Capricci Op 1
No.9 E Major
Caprice No 9 seems to take place in a forest, though of course this is not stated. This piece is the only place in Paganini’s cycle where the composer demands mimesis. Heoffers tools to achieve this. The ‘imitation of flutes’ is achieved by playing the upper two strings piano, sul tasto (on the fingerboard). The sound of horns is evoked by playing forte high on the two low strings. A division is immediately established between the two halves of the violin, which I imagine would not be far from the effect, which Paganini achieved in his two-stringed Scena Amorosa, which, if it was based on the story of Venus and Adonis, as Paganini suggested, also takes place in a wood. But in this Capriccio the imitation is working on two layers; for we players, this is all too easy to to overlook.
This is unquestionably hunting music; full of hunting horns, high stepping mounts (episode 1), and a frantic quarry. The combination of elements is not so far from the mis-en-scene of Antonio Vivaldi’s Autumn. But lets point out the obvious; there are no flutes in a hunt in a forest-they would be less than useless. So what are they doing? Why has Paganini so carefully demanded their imitation? The coda provides a clue. Here the final piano ‘flute call’ is repeated pianissimo. Whatever the flutes are, or represent, is disappearing, into the distance, it seems. This might make things a clearer. If we accept that the Capriccio is not so much a representation of a hunt, but a representation of a group of instruments imitating a hunt, an orchestra, in point of fact. In this orchestration, the impression of distant horns, or echoes of horns, which might determine if this is was a woodland piece or a mountain piece, is given by their being played on a pair of ‘flutes’.
The association between the modern orchestra and the forest has curious pre-echos in classical architectural theory, in the notion of the building as an idealised forest, leading to the ‘primal hut’. By the 19th century, this forest of the imagination had found its way into the world of performance, and most particularly, in the vision of the modern orchestra. In his Neue Gedichte Heinrich Heine (who described Paganini’s own playing with extraordinary clarity), used this image:
Es erklingen alle Baüme
Und es singen alle Nester,
Wer ist der Kapellmeister
In dem grünen Wald-Orchester.
Historisch-kritische Ausgabe de Werke (Hamburg, 1973-), ii.15
Paganini destroyed the possibility of hearing the piano as the imitation of echoes; after all these gestures begin the piece; and are answered forte. In addition this forte gesture inverts the flute call, making a visual dialogue, almost a musical landscape, before finding a normal relationship. The ‘horns’ it seems, gradually cotton on, and ‘echo’ the flutes, albeit, transposed down an octave. Of course, a completely different reading of this might be extracted if the locked pair of flutes were to be interpreted as being the classical aulos.
On the 27th December 1831, the young Charles Darwin left Plymouth on the Beagle . The voyage would last five years. In March 1835 he ascended the Pequenos Ridges in Chile, and had his first experience of altitude sickness. Halfway up the tortuous ascent, with men and mules suffering in the extreme cold, Darwin found himself briefly alone, and able to enjoy the view. He was ecstatic, and was driven to a recollection of the kind of music that he had not had an opportunity to hear for four years:
“The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms; the heaps of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-coloured rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow; all these together produced a scene no one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracting my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah .” Voyage of the Beagle Page 327-Darwin
Walter Pater’s remark, that ‘all Art aspires to the condition of Music’, is a useful litmus test of the times, but it is clear that at the time of Paganini, the increasing popularity of descriptive music was resulting in a reciprocal use of the idea of the performance of Music as metaphor.
Writing to Zelter from Paris on the 15th February 1832, Felix Mendelssohn noted:
“At the end of the first part, Kalkbrenner played his Traum-a new piano concerto that he composed and inwhich he has gone over to romanticism. He explained before that it begins with hazy dreams, and then comes an episode of despair, then a declaration of love, and finally a military march. No sooner had Henri Herz heard this than he too quickly came up with a romantic piano piece, likewise explaining it beforehand; first comes a conversation between a shepherd and a shepherdess, then a thunderstorm, then a prayer with evening bells, and finally a military march. You wouldn’t believe it, but it is completely true.”
Geminiani would not have been impressed. In the introduction to his Art of Playing the Violin (1751), which Thomas Jefferson so carefully annotated with quotes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (himself a fan of Vivaldi), Geminiani wrote:
“As the imitating the Cock, Cuckoo, Owl, and other Birds; or the Drum, French Horn, Troma Marina, and the like…rather belong to the professors of legerdemain and Posture-makers than to the Art of Musick, the Lovers of that Art are not the expect anything ot that Sort in this Book.” Art of Playing the Violin-Geminiani
In December 1799, Paganini’s father made the unwise decision to present his son in a concert in Livorno without ‘going through the right channels’. Musical life in Livorno was dominated by the Societa Degli Esercizi Musicale, which held an iron grip over all concert-giving in the city. Paganini’s father rented the concert venue, but failed to contact the Societa; consequently, they shunned the concert and the orchestra of the small theatre failed to appear. Undaunted, Paganini played unaccompanied for three hours, enchanting his listeners. Shamed, the Societa relented. On the following day, the concert was rearranged, this time with addition of the missing orchestra. (Fuld 45)
It would seem that Paganini’s belief, that he could quite satisfactorily replace and imitate a large ensemble, stemmed from this moment. Perhaps, this also gave birth to his most radical innovation, that of viewing a single instrument as complete in itself; this might give some explanation as to why his unaccompanied works so often seem to evoke a full orchestra, from the quadruple-stopped counterpoint of Nel Cor piu non mi sento through to the high percussion evoked in the Capriccio No 20.
The Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung would later write (1828):
“After the introductory orchestra movement he alone did not sound like the sound of a single isolated violin; such was the incredible strength and fullness of his tone, and his rendition of full notated chords seemed to give the impression of a full fledged quartet…” Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung 1828
The ‘imitation of Flutes’ was something for which Paganini was noted right at the beginning of his career. On the 5th December 1800, Paganini gave a performance of his arrangement of the Sinfonia from Rodolphe Kreutzer’s Lodoïska at the Teatro Rangoni, Modena. Alessandro Gandini, writing in his Cronistoria dei Teatri edi Modena (1873) reported that Paganini performed in the manner of ‘flutes played with the bow’. [Fuld 132]