Posted on December 27th, 2009 by


One of the most instantly recognisable, and most imitated of Pagnini’s show pieces, has become known as the Moses Fantasy. This work has inspired imitations by composers from Lindley to Martinu. Our understanding and knowledge of the piece was totally refracted through modern practice, and most particularly, the redefining of Paganini, which accompanied his revival in the mid-twentieth century.

The Sonata a Preghira MS 23 was composed around 1819. Rossini’s religious opera Mosè in Egitto was staged for the first time in March 1818 at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, where he was music director from 1815 to 1822.  The following year, it was produced again, with a completely revised last act, increasing the dramatic impact of the piece. One of the modifications to the work was the addition of the Preghira. (Cat Tem 77).

  In this work,  Paganini used a very particular scordatura, tuning the strings up a minor third, that Guhr mentioned him using in the 19th Capriccio. Although this piece is designed to be played on the bottom string of the violin, one version that I had seen, clearly required that the entire violin be tuned up, as the last note of the piece was a quadruple-stopped chord, notated in C Major, which, with the retuning, would sound in E flat. It is worth mentioning that for all of Paganini’s use of scordatura, he seems to preferred to keep the strings of the violin in the normal proportional relationship to each other, and eschewed the complex cross tunings required Biber’s Mystery Sonatas or the Hardanger tradition.

 The earliest mention that we have linking Rossini’s original work to Paganini was courtesy of another composer, Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833), who originally established his links to Italy after winning the 1814  Prix de Rome. While in Italy, he wrote three string quartets, a form to which he did not return after turning to opera. In 1820, Hérold wrote a letter to Giovanni BasttistaViotti (1755-1824), at that point director of the Théatre des Italiens, earnestly suggesting that he consider Rossini’s new piece. As a further lure, he suggested that Paganini would very much like to have the opportunity of coming to Paris and meeting the great violinist, that he admired ‘above all others.’ This letter formed part of the unsuccessful epistolary campaign for Viotti to put on Rossini’s religious opera.

 A few years after Hérold proposed Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto to Viotti, Rossini himself took take the reins at the very theatre where Viotti had been conducting. He courted royal favour very carefully, learning French, and providing a new work, Il Viaggio a Reims for the coronation of Charles X in 1825.  Rather than providing new works in French, he chose to begin by adapting two of his serious Italian works, which were both dramatic enough to appeal to Parisian audiences. One of these two works was Maometto II, which became Le Siège de Corinthe , presented in October 1826, with Adolphe Nourrit in the title role. The other was Mosè in Egitto, adapted as Moïse and first performed  in March 1827. Rossini’s publisher, Troupenas, helped him prepare the new score, without destroying the original sources. (Moldenhauer-Gossett 369) Of course, adapting a work for Parisian needs was hardly without precedent. Mozart added a Concertante bassoon line to his Symphony No 31 for it’s Parisian premiere, and was delighted at the effects that his musical coups de theatre had on the Paris audience (Neal Zaslaw- The Symphonies of Mozart ). Their appetite for dramatic effects and musical surprises was undiminished when Paganini arrived four decades later.

 When Paganini arrived in Paris, playing his variations on the Preghira from this work, he was playing a tune very familiar to the opera audiences-perhaps, like the audiences at Schikaneder’s Teater an der Wien, the audience might have sung along.

 In Fétis’ opinion, the Sonata a Preghira  revealed a certain inconsistent strain in Paganini’s playing; it is almost as if he was echoing Ingres’s disapproval:

“In the prayer from Mosè, for example, he was great when the baritone voice was heard on the fourth string, from the elevated character he gave to it; but when he came to the part of Elcia, an octave higher on the same string, he fell into an affected strain of heavy, tremulous, sounds, which good taste would have rejected. His triumph was in the last major strain; here he was sublime-and he then left an impression bordering on enthusiasm.” ( Fétis 75)

 Fétis’s criticism raised a concern of mine; for any player, the communication of any degree of emotion or colour is very much a matter of taste. This is not necessarily a problem for the artist who makes their argument by staying within the boundaries, but for those who feel themselves duty-bound to explore the more extreme sentiments, the most concentrated  colours, there is always the risk that these choices will offend the ‘good taste’ of a significant proportion of the listeners. In this respect, the reactions to Paganini’s work were very much to be expected; like his music, his music climbed per ardua ad astra and spent little time in the middle ground. This image holds well whether talking about the sentiments expressed in his writing, or even when one looks at the prosaic question of tessitura, as noted by Fétis.

 On the 17th June 1834, Paganini played the Preghira at the Victoria Theatre Royal, billed as: “Sonata (The second time in this country) composed expressly for Napoleone (sic), and as played before the late Emperor at Milan…” One of the earliest accounts of its performance comes from one Jacques Boucher, who heard Paganini play it at Livorno on February 9th 1810. He wrote to his father: “Then he played variations on the G-string”. Catalogo Tematico Catalogo Tematico

 However, the only surviving announcement that I have managed to find, which actually refers directly to this work by name is that for Paganini’s performance in London in June 1834.

 Often, it seemed, the first experience of works such as this even left Paganini’s colleagues unsure of quite what they were hearing. As Andrew McGee has noted, Paganini jealously guarded his secrets, but some of this mystery may also come down to his being a masterly improviser. There is an unidentified bass accompaniment  in his hand, in the collection of Bibliotheca Casanatensa in Rome. This might have been given to a forte pianist to play, whilst Paganini improvised. Perhaps the many ‘lost works’ of Paganini are actually improvisations, such as the variations on the Scots Wha Hae, which he apparently played in Edinburgh on the 18th November 1831. (N.17 Catalogo Tematico)

  Pierre Baillot’s 1834 l’Art du Violon, contains pages of ‘preludes in all the keys’, both melodic and chordal, clearly exercises for improvisation, bespeaking a notion of virtuosity far from today’s standard notion of faithfully rendering the exact score.

 Paganini’s report of his improvisational techniques employed at the Court in Lucca gells with this:

 “My duties required me to play in two concerts each week, and I always improvised, with piano accompaniment.  I wrote these accompaniments in advance, and worked out my theme in the course of the improvisation.” (Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung May 1830 No 20 p 324)

Paganini’s many surviving Albumblätter and musical autographs, are a clue to his improvisational approach.  Presumably this was how he and Rossini improvised together, beginning with their first reported joint appearance in 1814. I it is likely that, in keeping with late classical practice, the ‘accompaniments in advance’ which Paganini later avowed to writing, or at very least, having prepared by his various pianists, were very likely to be bass lines, ready for realisation, as the notion of the ‘piano accompaniment’ as opposed to the ‘accompanied keyboard’ was no more than embryonic in 1805. In later life, Paganini remembered otherwise.

 In 1804, the year of his violinMéthode co-written with Pirre Rode, and Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre Baillot published a Methode de violoncello e et de basse d’accompagnement. This instructs cellist and bassists in one of their most important functions, of elaborating a bass line, and accompanying recitativi in the manner made famous in London by Robert Lindley and Dragonetti. Every bass or cello player was educated in the techniques of elaborating a simple bass line. In both England and Germany, as Edward Holmes noted in A Ramble among the Musicians of Germany (1828), the fortepiano  was generally not used for this purpose, even when it was available to the orchestra; this was seen as being the role of the solo cello and bass [Zaslaw 339]

 Nonetheless, no more than two authentic actual piano accompaniments for Paganini’s music survive. It s more than likely that these were by Pio Cianchettini, composed, initially, at least to cope with the lamentable state of British minstrelsy. Paganini’s own Moses is almost only heard today, with piano, but the modern keyboard is almost the least suitable instrument to accompany such music, and lends a foursquare feeling to the work, completely at odds with either its lyrical or colouristic nature.