Paganini – ‘Segreto (1823)

Posted on January 16th, 2010 by

Paganini-Il Segreto (Courtesy Bruck-Wurlitzer)

Paganini-Segreto 1823 (Bruck-Wurlitzer MS)

FIRST RECORDING Peter Sheppard Skaerved-(Stradivari 1699) (Engineer Jonathan Haskell)


In October 1823, Paganini sent Germi his ‘segreto A’. This was his ‘sketch’ documenting the execution of complex harmonics for a single violinist. (The Bruck Wurlitzer MS). He was famous for implying that there was a ‘magic’ formula for his playing, although Warren Kirkendale pointed out that Paganini used the word ‘magic’ about everything from  violin technique to recipies. But when it came to secrets, his oft-repeated mantra was: “Ognuno ha I suoi sgreti”.  

 The ‘Bruck-Wurlitzer'[of Paganini’s segreto] manuscript in New York includes extra notes, as well as all the standard combinations, such as a fingered 10th (with a fingered harmonic across a perfect fifth, played 1-3, at the bottom of it, played, to add difficulty, in first position on the G and D string.

 What is particularly interesting about this chord, is that the stretch required to get to it instantly puts your hand into Paganini’s [well-documented, unique] hand position, with the centrally placed thumb, or with the thumb sometimes laid flat. Because there is just no other way to get to that stretch; Paganini’s hands were not that big. They were moderate size, like mine. But, like me, he had the ability to open the hand into an hyperextension, like this. The fingered tenth plus the fifth harmonic that features so prominently in the Bruck-Wurlitzer segreto is a good ‘primmer’ for any player to get a sense of Paganini’s hand position, and a way of experiencing its practicality.

 Now another notable feature of the Bruck-Wurlitzer manuscript is a mixture between fingered harmonics  and ‘scratch sounds’ which is not a harmonic, but rather a ‘scratched’ g’ on the D string.

And this is one of the areas that Paganini was most definitely interested in keeping secret. In this Manuscript, which he sent to [his lawyer] Germi, he ordered Germi to destroy it as soon as he had read it. All of the players of the time knew how to play  [fingered harmonic scales], that was obvious, and many of them knew about double harmonics in thirds. That had been written about in treatises for nearly a century before. There was nothing new, and nothing secret about either of these techniques.

 But what it seems that he was very concerned about was about what happened when he got down to the bottom of the instrument, after you got beyond this harmonic (plays), and you need to go further.Here contemporary knowledge failed. His answer was this mixture of harmonic and scratch, which produces the ‘fake’ effect.

 The exploitation of these timbres has returned to the fore in the past thirty years of writing for string instruments. Stimulated by the extreme colours to be found in the music of composers such as Bartók and Berg, the later twentieth century composers rediscovered the full range of textures and effects used by Paganini and his contemporaries and created a complete sonic aesthetic around them. Composer such as George Crumb, Helmut Lachenmann, and Olga Neuwirth have found ways of notating and developing the scratch tones which Paganini used so secretly, and put them under the musical microscope.

 This is why, I feel, Paganini  kept to the front of the stage, turning away from the musicians behind him. In the painting of his 1831 debut in London, ‘The Modern Orpheus’ Paganini is shown standing at the front of th stage, whilst Robert Lindley, Nicolas Mori and Dragonetti straining to see round the front, to try and see what was going on; how was he doing it? This was what, I believe, he did not want the other players on stage to find out. Interestingly, none of his contemporaries in London, and they collaborated with him extensively, seemed to fathomed this technique out. And is worth pointing out this was a distinguished list: Mori, Eliasson, Spagnoletti, Cramer, and Lindley, who worked with him extensively both on the the public stage and in more intimate chamber sessions. None of them used this technique in their works, for all their technical innovations. It was only in the late 20th century, that the technique resurfaced, in public, at any rate.

 Paganini’s use of the double stopped harmonics created such a furore  in Britain that and  anonymous English volume, largely plagiarised from Carl Guhrs Paganinis Kunst die Violine zu Spielen was published (Title). However, it includes the following:  “The method by which he accomplishes this apparent miracle, has hitherto remained a secret, or only known to the few (for it is not impossible that others may have made the same discovery as ourselves). It is the object then to divulge the secret, so that the public at large may have the benefit of it .”


Engineer: Kirsten Cowie