I am fascinated by the legacy of Paganini’s posture, depicted again and again, with enormous consistency by Landseer, Maclise, Ingres, Delacroix, Edouart and many others, not to mention countless contemporary caricatures.
In 2006 a George Grosz drawing A Paganini of the Gutter came up for sale at Sotheby’s. It depicts a tramp playing the violin leaning on a fire hydrant, on a rainy day inNew York City. He is wearing a hat, and pan-handling; rather than broken strings hanging from the scroll of his violin, he has a tin cup. He is playing outside a bar, and the implication of his aspect and location is that, like Alfred P Doolittle, he is just trying to scrounge enough to go and get another drink, though the crossed arms of the proprietor at the doorway would seem to suggest otherwise. Fascinatingly, Grosz has modeled his figure, consciously or not on the characteristic depictions of Paganini on stage. He is standing with the legs at a similar angle, the violin held low, but under the chin, unlike the characteristic folk ‘chin off’ hold. His left hand is in a high position, and he is gazing fixedly at hands, which are the only part of the drawing which are rendered with anatomical care. His right arm is high, which of course, is never how Paganini is shown, but the position of the hand on the stick, along from the frog chimes in with all the other factors to powerfully recall the depictions of Paganini in London in the early 1830s.
It was only in Los Angeles that another possible ramification of this posture became clear to me. In July 2005, I found myself watching the ‘Old Crow Medicine’ band, a curious post punk country and western band, on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. We were seated close to the stage, which meant that I was able to see the lead singer and violinist, Ketch Secor, close up and in profile. Suddenly I noticed that his postured was identical to Paganini’s; violin held down low, with the left arm lying along the trunk, left hip raised slightly, and the right shoulder hunched up, with the right elbow against the body-all mobility of the bow coming from below the elbow, and most startlingly of all, the right hand thumb held along the shaft of the bow, not crooked under the hand. The left hand thumb, as was noticed so often with Paganini was flat along the fingerboard, the hand basically rotating around a limited range of positions, without shifting.
‘King’s Theatre’ Friday June 3, 1831:’ The flexibility of his fingers is most astonishing; even to the throwing back of his thumb flat upon the back of his left hand. I know not whether it arises from his bodily organization, or from intense application, but his left shoulder is considerably more depressed than his right. His left arm is twisted inward to an uncommon degree, and affords him, consequently, extraordinary facilities in fingering, and the general handling of his violin. – Here we have a series of physical advantages, inestimable under right application; but whether they are the gift of nature, or acquired by art, I cannot pretend to determine.’
All of this was striking enough, but the Secor’s legato sound was the biggest ear-opener. This right hand grip does not allow for any downward pressure on the strings, and to a degree, with Secor’s self-confessed autodikat technique, there was no particular variety of attack or mobility. But the legato sound that resulted from this technique, which relies solely on the natural adhesive quality of the bow into the string, was most startling. It reminded me of Schumann’s description of Paganini’s sound upon first hearing him.[insert] The left hand held thus certainly allowed for the block chords and rapid ornamentation which are central to Country fiddling, and naturally, a vital part of Paganini’s armoury.
I could not resist asking the question, so I E mailed Secor, to ask him where his technical approach came from. His response was delightful. After admitting that he had no idea who this ‘Paganini Guy’ was, he proffered the insight that he was entirely self taught on the violin. He played it, he avowed, in the manner which seemed ‘most obvious to him’.
LINK To Nel Cuor Piu-original version
Paganini-Caprice 23. Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Live at the National Portrait Gallery September 2011
Posture. Sound. Paganini. SOUNDBOX
Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Royal Academy of Music Museum 22nd March 2011
Introduction. Krasner. Paganini.
Paganini and Ingres
Ingres and Delacroix-different responses to Paganini
Paganini as a tourist attraction
Dantan and Paganini
Stance, stage position etc
Augustin Edouart and more
Maria Luisa, Bacciochi