Charles-Philippe Lafont-Variations on ‘La Vestale’

Posted on December 11th, 2010 by


Charles-Philippe  Lafont-Variations on ‘La Vestale’ (Spontini) PSS-del Gesu (Il Cannone-strung with Gut strings and Paganini’s bridge design)

London February 2006

Fétis described Charles-Philippe Lafont’s (1781-1839) qualities:

“Lafont, too, one of the bright glories of the French School of violinists, was, at first, the pupil of Kreutzer.  Dissatisfied with the style of his master, which did not symphathise with his own, he joined the school of Rode, which seemed formed for the development of his own qualities, combining grave, purity, elegance and charm-qualities which subsequently, with study, rendered him a perfect master of his art.  The perfection of his intonation was so certain-the style of his bowing so seductive-his taste so exquisite in his ornament-that., if the sentiment of grandeur left anything to be desired, it was scarcely perceptible, it was lost in the rapture created by his grace and delicacy.”

Lafont made a solitary appearance at the Philharmonic Society on the 29th May 1815, sharing the stage with Robert Lindley, Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) and the great John Braham (1774-1856).

Charles-Philippe Lafont

In 1816, the French virtuoso Charles-Philippe Lafont arrived in Milan.  He was born in Paris in 1781, and died on tour with the pianist Henri Herz in 1839. A pupil of Rodolphe Kreutzer, he had been a singer at the Theatre Feydau, where Viotti was earlier the musical director.

Fétis described his qualities:

“Lafont, one of the bright glories of the French School of violinists, was, at first, the pupil of Kreutzer. Dissatisfied with the style of his master, which did not sympathise with his own, he joined the school of Rode, which seemed formed for the development of his own qualities, combining grave, purity, elegance and charm-qualities which subsequently, with study, rendered him a perfect master of his art. The perfection of his intonation was so certain-the style of his bowing so seductive-his taste so exquisite in his ornament-that., if the sentiment of grandeur left anything to be desired, it was scarcely perceptible, it was lost in the rapture created by his grace and delicacy.”[i]

On arrival in Milan Lafont was, determined to challenge Paganini to a musical contest, effectively, a duel. Paganini had still not left Italy, and indeed would not for some years, but his reputation as the greatest living violinist was beginning to spread across Europe, threatening virtuosi in countries which he had not yet visited.

Lafont approached Paganini’s friend Rossini, as intermediary, and invited him to pass on the challenge. In this, he was behaving exactly as most traveling soloists of the 18th century had always done. Knights errant of their day, they sought pre-eminence over the leading players of each city that they visited-fail, and that had to leave, tail between the legs. In the mid-1790’s pianists visiting Vienna had sought out Beethoven in this way; many to their cost.

“Lafont came to Milan with one intention, to prove that Paganini was a Charlatan, and he was sure that a brief trial would prove him right.”[ii]

Lafont had brought musical material with him, a relatively new Sinfonia Concertante by his former teacher, Rodolphe Kreutzer, whose music Paganini himself regularly played. This large work would form the meat of their contest. Kreutzer had, been one of the first international virtuosi that Paganini had the opportunity to meet, when he was 14, in Genoa, at the house of the Marquis Gian Carlo di Negro.  

Paganini was unhappy about taking part in such a contest, and initially demurred, when Rossini brought the challenge to him. He would later would avoid active comparison with other violinists at all costs, only taking out the violin in the security of his own concerts, when the stage was truly his. However, Rossini impressed upon him that it would be a bad idea  to duck the challenge. Paganini grudgingly acquiesced, and immediately turned the tables on Lafont, by refusing to take the Kreutzer part which was proffered for him to practice, saying that he would sight-read it in the rehearsal La Scala.

Paganini was extremely popular with the Milanese. He had lived there since 1813, and in that year, had given no fewer than eleven concerts at La Scala. In addition, it was at La Scale, in the spring of 1813, that he first heard the Süssmayr opera Il noce de Benvenuto . His choice of Le Streghe  -variations on this popular work- as his ‘weapon of choice’ for the ‘duel’ with Lafont, was well-advised.

We have detailed accounts of their rehearsal, which is rare for this period. This was an intriguing affair as it served two purposes.

As might be expected, it was necessary to fix points of ensemble, orchestral colour and find errors in parts. Uniquely amongst soloists of his time, Paganini was pernickety about points of orchestral intonation and balance, raising orchestral eyebrows and hackles, by insisting passages be rehearsed and repeated if they were not to his liking, whilst also inspiring admiration, with his fine ear. However, he would give praise where it was due, calling out: ‘ Bravo, Messieurs, vous êtes touts Virtuoses…’

But in addition, the two duelists seem to have used the rehearsal to search out each other’s weaknesses. Clearly Paganini soon found Lafont’s – certain inflexibility, and he exploited it to the full. It seems that he realized that there was little to choose between them in terms of technique.

When it came to sound, he was impressed by Lafont’s 1699 Stradivari, which later became known as the ‘Lady Tennant’. Indeed he was tempted to get a similar one for himself: It was reported that he felt that Lafont’s instrument was better than his. I wonder if this is a misunderstanding, partially arising from the number of violins with which Paganini was accustomed to using, and clearly, because of his use of scordaturae the need for multiple violins in one concert. Perhaps he realized that Lafont’s instrument was particularly suited to a certain kind of violin playing, particularly the highly agile, deftly coloured music of his French rival. Charles Phlippe Lafont owned two Stradivari, the 1699, and an instrument from 1708. After his death, the 1699 instrument came into the hands of the London dealers, W E Hill and Sons. In 1900, Arthur Hill wrote to Lady Tennant: “Though you may perhaps see a Strad that you may be told is of a different period or more attractive, you cannot get one in the very perfect state that this instrument is. Such violins never some into the saleroom nor are they offered publicly in any way.”

Strategically, Paganini played extremely accurately and plainly in the rehearsal; in later years it was reported that he would not play at all, but would leave his violin on a chair, or even as was reported in London, play along with the orchestra alla gittara, his violin held beneath his arm, whilst directing the orchestra

Clearly, the varying standards of regional British orchestras later caused him consternation. A letter to the Liverpool promoter, Weiss, advertises that has a pianist and piano parts, Cianchettini, if the ensemble was not going to be up to scratch. A complete manuscript of his Maestoso Suonata Sentimentale, which he first played in London on the 27th June 1831, was prepared by Cianchettini, who Dussek’s  nephew. He  had begun his career as a child prodigy in Milan, and eventually profited by publishing his own piano works  a la Paganini.

Several of Cianchettini’s manuscripts have survived, including his reduction of the Paganini’s variations on Haydn’s ‘Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser’, which he first played in Vienna.  He also composed his own set of variations like Paganini, on Rossini’s i Tanti Palpit (Tancredi). Perhaps this was not just opportunism. The pianist Vladimir Horovitz’s most famous composition was his set of variations, on Carmen, his Carmen Fantasy. This originated in the performances of Pablo de Sarasate’s eponymous work which he gave on tours with the violinist Nathan Milstein at the beginning of their respective careers. Frustrated by Sarasate’s unimaginative piano writing, Horovitz added more and more embellishments of his own at every performance. Eventually, Milstein realised that his presence on stage was moot; one night, he pushed Horovitz on stage by himself. Perhaps Cianchettini suffered similar from frustration. Whatever the truth of the matter, his collaboration with Paganini, occasioned by the lamentable state of British orchestras, marked the beginning of the practice.

In the concert Paganini played his Le Streghe MS 19,in 1813. This work is based on a theme drawn from the ballet “The Walnut Tree of Benvenuto” by Vigano, which had music by Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766-1803).  Süssmayr is remembered today as the pupil of Mozart who finished the Requiem, having been entrusted with the task by Constanze Mozart. Il noce de Benvenuto was his last completed work, one of a series with mysterious or exotic topics. These ranged from Soliman der Zweite   through to Phasman oder Die Erscheinung im Tempel der Verschwiegenheit.

Vigano’s version of Süssmayr’s ballet had been premiered three years before the duel with Lafont, also at La Scala. Paganini himself had premiered his own variations at the same theatre in October 1813.  He first played it in London on the 30th June 1831.  Like his first concerto, and the Polacca con variazioni MS 19, this work is designed to be played with a scordatura of the violin tuned up a semitone. The orchestral part is notated in E Flat major, the violin part in D major.

It is clear that this was part of Paganini’s strategy. Not only was he the local hero, but he was playing a work with which he had already won over the Milan audience, based on a popular ballet premiered in the city. This was typical of his forward planning, and also of the way that his friend, Rossini, would lay the ground for his own popular and critical successes.

Come the concert in Milan, at every true solo passage in the Kreutzer Sinfonia Concertante, he added hugely complicated decorations, double stops, and improvisations. Rossini feigned annoyance that Paganini was extemporizing so far from the actual harmony, but seems privately to have enjoyed the show enormously. The tactic clearly worked, the Milanese acclaimed their champion, and Lafont, crestfallen, high-tailed it out of the city at the first opportunity, apparently remembering that he had left his favourite bow in Paris, and had to go and get it!

The effective result was less clear cut. Paganini candidly admitted that there was nothing to choose between their playing; he admired Lafont enormously but that his rival ‘did not astonish’. A contemporary wrote: “Monsieur Lafont, having acquiesced in silence to such acclaim, does not diminish one iota of his acquired fame: as not only himself, but every living violinist how dares enter into rivalry with Paganini, will be prostrated.”

But there was method in Lafont’s abrupt departure. Upon his arrival in Paris, he took every opportunity to announce that he had revealed Paganini to be a charlatan. In a latter to a French newspaper he noted that Paganini could not match up to the French Virtuosi. “I declare now as I have always done that the French Violin School is the first in the World.” [iii]

 It was 15 years before Paganini found himself on the Parisian stage. Lafont himself, seems to have foregone dueling with violinists after this encounter, and thereafter took on pianists. Indeed, it was during a tour with one such, Henri Herz, whose music also appeared on Paganini’s programmes, that he was killed in a carriage.

Fétis pointed out that the result of the Duel in Milan would very likely have been reversed had the two violinists given the concert to a Parisian audience in the same year. Of course, his opinion reveals a high-handed Northern European prejudice, but it is well-taken. “In a concert, at the Conservatory (Paris) in 1816, the palm would have been awarded to [Lafont], but with an Italian public, athirst for novelty and originality, his failure was certain.” Fétis assumes, bizarrely that had Paganini visited Paris fifteen years earlier than he did, the post-restoration public would have had too elevated tastes for his ‘novelty and originality.’ I simply cannot believe this; the popularity of the melodrama theatres, the appetite for opera, for stage effects, would I have ensured Paganini’s triumph had he chosen to arrive earlier.[iv]


[i] (Fétis P 23)

[ii] Wasliewski

[iii] (Day 88)

[iv] (Fetis 40)

Charles-Philippe Lafont

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