Thoughts on Paganini and England

Posted on December 10th, 2009 by

Peter with 'Il Cannone'. London 2006. Photo: Richard Bram

Peter with 'Il Cannone'. London 2006. Photo: Richard Bram

 Click on Paganini and Eliasson

 Preparations for Paganini’s Arrival in London-1831


“For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes

The still sad music of humanity,

Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue.”

Wordsworth Lyrical Ballads (1798),

On the 26th February 1829, the violinist Niccolo Paganini sat down to write a letter at his desk at his furnished lodgings at Friederikstr. 80, Berlin, an establishment run by Madame Noisez.  It was addressed to the future Eleventh Earl of Westmoreland, John Fane (1784-1859), the Lord Burghersh. It seems likely that Paganini had known Westmoreland since 1818, when he had been the British Ambassador to Florence. Paganini’s connections to the Austrian diplomatic community in Italy, would very likely have given him entrée to the Salons where he could have met the diplomat. Burghersh was an enthusiastic amateur, a violinist and prolific composer, the author of no fewer than seven operas, some of which were produced at Florence during his time there; such was the power of the office. To any British musician, he is better known as the founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Music. From the tone of Paganini’s letter, it is clear that the career diplomat and the violinist had been plotting for some time how best to bring Paganini to London. However Paganini had been insistent on any trip to Britain being on his terms. This had been made crystal clear three years earlier when he had declined the invitation of the virtuosa soprano Angelica Catalani to take part on her tour to England. A note to his lawyer Luigi Guglielmo Germi, written in Naples made this crystal clear; he would not be anyone else’s support act:

La Catalani would like to bind me to her company to London; but I do not want this.”

Now it, seemed, their plans were coming to fruition. Paganini wrote:

“Behold finally, the moment has come that I have longed for so much, to see London.”

In point of fact, ‘the moment’ was far from having arrived; Paganini would not arrive in the British Capital for over two years, having carefully stage-managed a perfect touchdown at the very peak of media, establishment and public expectation.  The press campaign anticipating his arrival on these shores drove some to distraction. On the 22nd May 1821, The Age opined:

“This is indeed an age of humbug! When will it end? A crisis must now really be approaching. Who can read the paragraphs in the daily prints concerning this itinerant fiddler without being disgusted ‘usque ad nauseam’. The abominable puffing, the disgraceful caresses, and above all, the shameless profusion which ahs been lavished on this modest foreigner is really past all endurance.”


Paganini crossed the channel on the Dover packet on the 13th May 1831, arriving by stage in London at seven o’clock the next morning. Upong his arrival in London, Paganini took rooms at the Hotel Sablonière et Provence-Leicester Square. Sixteen years later, Hans Christian Andersen found himself in the same hotel, on his first visit to London. He noted that he had a “room looking out on the Garden, but the windows were so covered with soot, that my arms were soon covered with soot.” Within days of his arrival, it was being suggested that Paganini was encountering problems with his hotel’s infestations: “This string the rats at the Sabloniere have made free to nibble in two, and the Signior (sic) Paganini’s loss has nearly driven him frantic.” London would have been Paganini’s first encounter with an industrialising city, and it would surely have been a shock, as artists were still hiding from this reality. It took the brutal honesty of Gustave Doré’s unblinking views of the squalor and pollution of this rapidly changing metropolis, before the reality would be apparent to those who had yet to visit.

 When he arrived, he was surrounded, instantly, by musicians and grandees associated with the Royal Academy of Music, which Burghesh had founded in 1823. These ranged from Viotti’s pupil, the violinist and gourmet Nicolas Mori, through to Sir George Smart, who would stage manage his later moves in the British Isles. By the summer of 1831, he was living in the fashionable Quadrant, which was built to disguise the curve of Regent Street, and where Smart himself also had rooms.

 From the moment he played his first notes in London, in June 1831, Paganini’s impact would be profound, an impact that resonated far beyond the dates of his last performances in Britain, in 1834. One might argue, that from the time of his arrival, performance in Britain would never be the same again, and indeed, that he redefined the very notion of celebrity, just at the moment that the popular artists of the Victorian era, most especially, Charles Dickens, like Paganini a true solo performer with, whose first play, the Bloomsbury Christenings, was produced by the Adelphi Theatre, in 1835, the year after Paganini left.

 A furore had erupted around the composer Carl Maria Von Weber following the first London production of Der Freischutz. His arrival in the capital in person in 1826, to supervise the production of Oberon, resulted in mass public hysteria that was not outdone until Paganini’s arrival in five years later. Of course, in Weber’s case, the hysteria was matched by tragedy; for all his enjoyment of the food, he caught a cold during a particularly noxious ‘London Particular’, and died in London. His body would not leave for ten years after Paganini’s departure; at the moment that the Genoan appeared in London, the cadaver was unceremoniously stored in the chapel of Moorfield’s hospital; some felt that Weber’s benevolent ghost smiled upon his whole enterprise, recognising a kindred spirit.  Richard Lane seems to have felt just this. A shadowy presence hovers at the back of the orchestra/ensemble in his The Modern Orpheus; Nicolas Mori, standing at the back, has a face peering over his left shoulder. The face is wearing spectacles, and is almost indistinguishable from the famous John Cawse portrait of Weber, now in the Foundling Hospital collection. This artist was not alone; some listeners actually seemed to have felt that in Paganini, they were actually meeting one of Weber’s characters, in the flesh.

“His nose is aquiline, his chin much curved upward; his mouth singularly shaped; his forehead ample, and exceedingly characteristic; his eye small, but vivid, and particularly during the most difficult and inspired of his performances; his hair flowing, black and shining, and floating down the back and sides of his head, in long waving curls, giving this performance an air as peculiar and original as the wild hunter in ‘Der Freischutz’.”

 Perhaps with more than a weather eye to emulating Weber’s success, the ground was carefully prepared; in the months leading up to Paganini’s arrival, a artfully orchestrated press campaign laid the fanned the flames of public interest, fascination, and especially, scandal. In the November 1830 edition of ‘The Harmonicon’, the following article appeared, purporting to have been extracted from the journal of an enthusiastic female fan, ‘from the diary of a Dilettante’. The writer clearly had a mind to the frenzy which had greeted his arrival in Vienna two years earlier:

“October 2nd. We shall talk of Paganini very much till he comes. When he arrives nobody will speak or think or think of anything else, for nine, perhaps eighteen days: he will be everywhere: all other violinists will be utterly forgotten: if will be agreed that he instrument was never before heard; that his predecessors were all tyros: all other fiddles mere kits. There will be Paganini Rondos and waltzes; variations, long, short, hard easy, all à la Paganini. We shall have Paganini hats, caps, &c.; and the hair of all the beaux patronised by beauty will be after his curious pattern. His influence will extend to our tables, and there will be Paganini puffs served up daily. Then, all at once, his very name will cease to be pronounced by persons of ton; and as a matter of course, people not of ton-not of the Devonshire circle, not of Almacks-will imitate those who are; and the Italian players, like the penultimate fashion, will be utterly forgotten!-in good society. I will even allow him to flourish here two whole months, provided no new chin-chopper arrive in the interim, no danseuse with a miraculous toe, to contest the supremacy of this wonderful bow: should any such rival enter the lists with him, his glory will set no less than a moon, and never blaze again above our fashionable horizon.”

 This was no augury; the correspondent was merely reporting the furore which had erupted across Europe from the moment that Paganini had set forth north of the Alps. For over a decade and a half, rumours had been seeping out from Italy of a musician unlike any before. As early as 1816, virtuosi as accomplished as the French virtuoso, Charles-Philippe Lafont, who had succeeded Pierre Rode as the personal violinist to Tsar Alexander 1st, felt it necessary to ‘chance their arms’, and challenge this mysterious genius of the violin to trials of strength. Like those who had, two decades earlier, risked everything and challenged Beethoven in Vienna, these soon regretted their folly. Even in 1830, Lafont felt it necessary to avow that he had not been bested by the Genoan, as the stories of his humbling in 1816 began to circulate, or, more to the point, were circulated in the popular press in advance of Paganini’s arrival in London. 

 In April 1830, The Harmonicon published the following from Lafont:

“…far from making a cruel trial of the powers of my adversary, or of being beaten by him, as is pretended by the author of the Notice, I obtained a success the more flattering, as I was a stranger in the country.”

This letter was published a full year before Paganini’s arrival; by the time he arrived, such to-ing and fro-ing in the press had whipped up a veritable storm of expectation.

 To get a taste of a city in the grip of’ ‘Paganini mania’, it is necessary to go back to his home town, to the beautiful city Genoa, where, he and his violin, are the municipal mascots, trumping even the presence of what was long averred to be the Holy Grail, an emerald green glass bowl, kept in the tresorio of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. Quite apart from the annual music festival in his name, the Paganiniana, the city sports Paganini bakeries, restaurants, pet shops, chocolate shops, even a Casa Paganini which has absolutely nothing to do with his childhood, but, nonetheless succeeds in fooling nearly everyone.

 The very use of the word ‘celebrity’ was a product of the age, Paganini was one first ‘celebrities’ , as she called them, to be exhibited in the Madame Tussaud’s newly opened ‘Baker Street Bazaar’ when it opened in 1835, the year after his final departure. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word only found its way into literature thirteen years later. A line in Mrs Craik’s novel, Olgivies, written in 1846, includes the usage as we would recognise it. “Did you see any of those ‘celebrities’ as you call them?” Madame Tussaud would have smiled to find her coinage in general use, and would also, I suspect, approve of the success of Paganini’s publicity in Genoa.

 In London, the press campaign worked a treat. Very soon real diarists, both dilettantes and professionals, were noting their excitement. On the 13th May 1831, the young singer, painter and pianist, John Orlando Parry wrote in his private journal, ‘Remarks on things in general’:

“That wonder of wonders, viz “Paganni”, arrived in the Country! He does the most inconceivable things on the Violin-He is going to give a Concert on the 21st-all the world will be there.”

Whether or not, all the world was there, when “Paganni” finally gave his debut, two weeks after originally advertised, Parry’s excitement was shared by the spectacle loving public in  London. By the time, he came to paint his extraordinary homage to the London billboard, The Posterman in 1835, he had also learnt how to spell his name. In the same week, Parry reported ‘Electioneering in all parts of England’, as the calls for reform grew louder, the return of the great Pasta, undiminished in ‘power or sweetness’, supported by Paganini’s friend, the great Lablache and Rubini, and a ‘Seven Act!’, opera on the subject  of Napoleon at Covent Garden. Despite such tumultuous week in politics and the arts, it was clear that nothing excited him as much as the arrival of solitary violinist, ‘that wonder of wonders’.

 Parry’s expectations, and the anticipation of the whole of musical London, were fulfilled. No visiting artist, before or since, made such an impact across such a broad audience.  One month later, a few weeks after Paganini’s debut, and his acclaim as the ‘Modern Orpheus’, ‘The Playgoer’ noted:

“But even after what we have heard, how are we to endure hereafter our violins and their players? How can we consent t hear them? How crude they will sound, how uniformed, how like a cheat! When the Italian goes away, violin-playing goes with him, unless some disciple of his should arise among us and detain a semblance of his instrument. As it is, the most masterly performance, hitherto so accounted, must consent to begin again, and be little boys in his school.” 

Sources: N Paganini, Epistolario 1810-1831, Sjira 2006, The Age, London. Sunday, May 22nf 1831, A Musical Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland, Gerald Norris, David and Charles, H.C.Andersens Dagboger, III, 1845-1850, Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post: or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser, Vol LXX No 3422, Thursday June 9th, 1831, The Harmonicon, vol VIII, n 4, April 1830, 13th May 1831, Orlando Parry ‘Remarks on things in general’, The playgoer 25th June 1831.