Paganini’s ‘Red Book’ – A Personal View

Posted on December 21st, 2018 by

Paganini’s ‘Red Book’ – A Personal View

Peter Sheppard Skærved

(English version of my chapter published by Silvana Editoriale (Milano)  for the Genova exhibition ‘Paganini Rockstar’ which is showing around the Cannone Violin.)

The cover of ‘Paganini Rockstar’.

Niccolò Paganini has been at the heart of my relationship with my violin since I was in my early teens.  I have never forgotten the thrill of recording my first Capriccio, when I was 15, and decades later, found myself performing on his great Guarnerius, il Cannone, in London, and then in Genova. My fascination took a new step, when, in 2012, when I was asked to build a project around his so-called ‘Secret Red Book’ by the Library of Congress, Washington DC.  When I held it for the first time, I was struck by an enjoyable shock of recognition; in my hands was a familiar object, just like the notebooks which I have used to organise my work on the road. Paganini’s notebook is a hotchpotch of accounts, memos, directions, addresses, medicine, album-like entries, and names of contacts. In addition, there’s material apparently included for entertainment, for diversion; on long carriage journeys, maybe to be read out loud.  Holding it, I am struck by the similarity, in scale and function, to a mobile phones. It’s a place where everything can be kept, prosaic, poetic, and trivial.

Two notebooks. It was pointed out that Paganini’s Red Book is not so dissimilar to my own notebook. Library of CongressPhoto Richard Bram

The cover of the ‘Red Book’ is inscribed ‘Verses, Stories and Sonnets’. It begins with a series of Sonnets, by a number of Italian authors, neatly copied out, in the handwriting his of his lawyer and oldest friend, Guiglemo Germi. I suspect that Germi gave it to Paganini (the back cover is inscribed ‘Sonetti di Germi’ [crossed out]; perhaps he originally purchased the volume to write down poetry, changed his mind. I think that when he gave it to Paganini, he copied out a set of Sonnets (by a number of authors) at the beginning, and then added to it over time. Some way into the book, there’s a lengthy translation of Thomas Moore’s short story, Lalla Rookh. This starts off in Germi’s neat hand, but branches out in multiple handwritings, and names of characters in the story in a childish script, which might be that of Paganini’s young son, Achille who travelled with him during the opening years of his grand tour. As a parent, I recognise this, my own notebooks dating from my son’s early years are dotted with additions, interventions from him. It is worth noting that all of the materials in Paganini’s book are in pen; in the years before the innovation of the ‘fountain pen’, these required either a desk or escritoire, with an inkwell, and sand, which was difficult to use on the road.

Peter Sheppard Skaerved with Paganini’s ‘Red Book’ 20 June 2012 Photo; Richard Bram

Paganini did not speak much English (British newspapers mocked his ‘macaroni’ accent). I wonder if, in anticipation of a tour climaxing in London, Germi and Paganini, copied out Moore’s story (as Madre Indianai) as a translation exercise (the entry notes that it is a translation from English).

Perhaps the original intention of the ‘Red Book’, was that it was for ‘use on trip’, like taking a ‘Kindle’ to read rather than a pile of books, and necessity (the need for a piece of paper to write on), made its use became more prosaic, as a notebook, a ledger. I recognise this; many of my paperbacks (stuffed into rucksacks, pockets and violin cases whilst I was reading them), have the endpapers crowded with addresses, names of contacts, aides-memoires, ideas, drawings and so on. We use the first available piece of paper when we travel; the discursive, even muddled nature of the ‘Red Book’ appears to be exactly that.

Landseer depicts Paganini astonishing a London audience in 1832

Paganini did not fill in the pages of the book in sequentially. There is a desultory stab at numbering the first two pages, but there it stops. Such practice was common in the 1800s; albums and notebooks were filled in shotgun-fashion unless bought with pre-numbered entries, such as the Tagebuch which Beethoven used from 1812-13. Such numbering could lead to oddities; in Beethoven’s case, resulting in curious abutments of philosophical quotes, personal reminders, and day-to-day minutiae. The only use of the numbers is that it tells us the order in which they were entered, and not the date.

However, coming from 18th Century Italy, with its particular mix of religion and superstition, I wonder if Paganini, was perhaps avoiding ‘numbering’ his personal life, for reasons of which he was unaware, but may have been sensitive. Numbering of pages had been a vexed issue for the medieval church. A 13th Century priest Elias Salomon, called page-numbering ‘computus’, and noted that it bore no relation to the liturgy or the church year. There was consequent fear of heresy, and reports of choir masters cutting off the corners of such pages so that their charges did not fall into sin. The introduction of the Arabic number system, which included the number ‘zero’, anathema to the Church, was regarded as perilous. I am not suggesting that Paganini and his contemporaries were tortured by medieval anxiety, but  perhaps this history explains why such commonplace books, filled with accounts and ledgers, were kept in apparent dis-order. I don’t seem to suffer from this. I fill in my notebooks in order, and take (heretical?) pleasure in numbering the pages after the book is finished.

For every travelling musician in the 1800s, letters of introduction were imperative, to gain access to the right salons, the chamberlains, theatre directors, politicians, churchmen, police chiefs and ambassadors who could open (or close) the doors for successful performing. We need these collections of names and contacts to this day. In preparation for arrival in Vienna in April 1828, the ‘Red Book’ lists 19 references necessary open society doors in Imperial Capital. Not surprisingly, it is the one fastidiously neat section of the ‘Red Book’. Paganini, of course, had a huge advantage, as he had got to know Chancellor Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Prince von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein, in the winter of 1818-19 in Rome, in the salon of Prince Kaunitz. Paganini wrote:

‘Prince Metternich, who was then in Rome, could not attend this concert owing to an indisposition, but came to the Palace the next morning. To oblige him, I took the first violin that came to hand and played something for him, which pleased him so much that he came again the same evening….It was on this occasion that Prince Metternich invited me to come to Vienna. I promised to visit that city first after leaving Italy.’

Prince Metternich in 1825, by Sir Thomas Lawrence

The Prince Metternich was later instrumental, alongside Napoleon’s second empress, Archduchess Marie Louise of Parma (who became Paganini’s patron in 1836), in sponsoring his son Achille’s legitimacy.

With the close of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, a new of musician emerged, relatively uncommon prior to the 1790s – the traveller. Historically, musicians had always, but in the entourage of princes or ambassadors, or as part of the dowries. Some were sent by one patron to impress another, as part of the soft diplomacy that filled the time between the constant wars in Europe up till the 20th century. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union revived this; at moments it seemed that the only meaningful contact between East and West was through David Oistrakh, or Sviatoslav Richter. Most famous tour had been endless tour of the Mozarts, only brought to a halt, when Leopold’s Salzburg employer order his Kapellmeister home; world-famous they might be, but servants still. The spending power of royalty and nobility waned during the long war, so musicians were able to travel for improvement, or to bring greater lustre to their patrons’ salons; so it was with Beethoven. Most conveniently, the escalation of conflict in the years after his 1792 trip to ‘receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn’ in Vienna meant that he was never called upon to his post at the Electoral Court in Bonn.

Niccolò Paganini began his career, as just such an indentured musician, at the Court of Lucca, where one of the three ‘parvenu princesses’,  the three sisters of Napoleon,  Elisa, was married to Felice Bacciocchi, who the Emperor had installed as Prince. He carried out all the duties of the musician-servant, teaching his employer the violin, playing while Princess Elisa read Chateaubriand, and writing new works for the famous sculpture gardens of the palace. His employment did not last long, but he was fond of the smart blue and red livery, and was later sanctioned for wearing after his employment had ceased. But by 1828, his life was very different; and he could go on the long-planned free-lance journey, an enormous tour north and west from Vienna; establishing himself, for six years, as a fixture in Paris and London, the two cities who welcomed him most whole-heartedly.

Eventually his health, and a maladie-du-pays, a longing for the countryside north of his home town, Genova, and the memory of his mother’s cooking, brought an end to the peregrination. For a short while, curiously, he was ‘in service’ again, working as maestro di capella ironically enough, for another ex-Napoleonic duchess, Bonaparte’s second empress, Marie-Louise, greatly reduced, as Duchess of Parma. The ‘Red Book’ is full of material pertaining to these years of touring.

The free-wheeling touring life which he pursued from 1828-1834, later known as ‘barnstorming’, would be familiar to any modern musician. Its non-stop quality is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s ‘Never-ending Tour’ which has, to all intents and purposes, being going since June 1987 (Ironically Dylan continues to deny that such a thing exists). I wonder if Paganini would have seen his life as such a thing, between 1828, the year of his first concerts in Vienna, and 1834, when he said final farewell to London.

The problem that confronts every traveller, and particularly travelling performers, is money. Until an employee of American Express, Marcellus Berry, invented the ‘traveller’s cheque’ in 1891, it was often insurmountable, as each country, duchy, principality and some cities in the early 19th century exacted duty on monetary instruments crossing their borders, and  set draconian limits on how much money could be taken out of the country. Every traveller, needed the assurance of good relationships with banks in the cities visited; it was too risky to travel with large amounts of currency, and without the guarantee of a reputable house back home. Travelling performers needed to be under the protective wing of patronage, be it royal, noble, masonic or diplomatic, or to have letters of credit from their home banks to corresponding banking houses in the countries which they might visit. This took planning. So it’s no surprise that the ‘Red Book contains a poem dedicated to the Marianne, daughter of Bernhard von Eskeles. He was a partner in the Viennese Bank of ‘Arstein & Eskeles’, and a music lover. He was also related to the Mendelssohn family, whose Berlin address also appears.  Paganini was formally introduced formally to the firm by Carlo di Tommaso in Milan on March 1st 1828, one month before he left for Vienna. This provided the all-important security that he needed. Four months later he wrote Germi that after his ‘triumphal’ concerts in Vienna, he had deposited 60,000 Austrian Lire in the bank.

The link to the Eskeles family raises a tantalising ‘what if?’ Paganini arrived in Vienna one year after the death of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose chamber music he admired passionately. The names of Paganini’s Vienna contacts in the ‘Red Book’ include a number of Beethoven’s circle.  And one page, in the London section, includes a reminder to himself, to take a letter from Beethoven’s one piano student Ferdinand Ries, to Sir George Smart (who had visited Beethoven in Vienna), who he describes, somewhat inaccurately as ‘direttorre dell’Oratorio grande’, at his address on ‘Rue de Portland’ in London. If Beethoven had still been alive, they not only would have met, but (I believe) collaborated. Music history might have looked very different. At one point, Paganini and Smart both lodged in the same London building, the now demolished ‘Quadrant’, built to disguise the curve of Regent Street from the Haymarket to Portland Place.

The Quadrant, much as Paganini would have known it. (Photo 1896)

Paganini’s scrupulous care for, his interest in his concert receipts was often misunderstood-resulting in his being accused of avarice. An anonymous newspaper cutting from 1831, the year of his first concerts in the UK reads:

 ‘Paganini – this greatest of all imposters is travelling about the country ‘scraping’ pence, and swears he will not go to Russia so long as John Bull will throw a shilling into his hat.  Is there no clause in the Vagrant Act that will lay hold of this fellow?’

I am not sure that a glance of at the ‘Red Book’ would disabuse a 19th-Century journalist of their outrage at Paganini’s interest in money. One page (undated) is a totted-up account of touring earnings, from in Dresden to Strasbourg, by way of London, Manchester, Edinburgh, and Prague. The total figure is 325,000 francs, of which 180,000 was earnt in the British Isles. That’s roughly £2m in today’s money.

One page of the ‘Red Book’ speaks to Paganini’s attempts to counter the libels and he rumour-mongering of his enemies and rivals:

‘Le Professeur/Jules Maximilien Schottky/de Berlin, /qui a ecrive [sic] la Biographie/de Mr Paganini/Prague le 8me Janvier 1829.’

Four days later, Paganini wrote a testimonial for Schottky:

‘The signatory gives permission to Sig. Professore Schottky to publish the biography of me and enjoins that it might be done, if possible to defend me, and to discredit the calumnies of or my enemies. Niccolò Paganini’

One year later, Paganini’s Leben und Treiben als Künstler und als Mensch: mit unpartheiischer Berücksichtigung d. Meinungen seiner Anhänger u. Gegner  was published in Prague. Julius Maximilien Schottky had been a law student in Breslau, before turning to medieval studies in Vienna.  In 1822, where he met Heinrich Heine, and they planned to work together on a history of medieval Germany. However, this collaboration failed, and Schottky became a mere gymnasium professor. He was tormented by his students, who once left a herring ringed by potatoes on his desk, with the inscription: ‘Out of Herring Tails and Potatoes is Schottky’s Laurel Wreath composed’. This failure led to an itinerant lifestyle, and the need to write a commercially viable biography of a popular artist. In the last years of his life, he was editor of the Trierer Zeitung. Schottky noted:

“Very often in his discussions with me, Paganini reiterated that once he was finished with this travels and had retired to some peace, then he intended to tell furnish the world, with a musical secret, which hitherto was not to be learnt in any conservatoire.”

Some hoped that this secret it was to be found in the pages of this ‘Red Notebook’, but the only secrets squirrelled away here are recipes!

Paganini was the centre of gossip in every country that he visited. Most of it was harmless, of it part of the very successful media campaign to keep attention on the itinerant virtuoso. Here’s a typical example from Britain:

‘Paganini is a native of Nova Zendia, we believe…a celebrated Irish violinist – Very well, very well indeed. But Paganini is Sicilian – Not quite right yet. Paganini is a Corsican, and therefore a Frenchman, on the authority of Napoleon –  Guess again, for you are as much out of the way as your brethren…Paganini is Genoese, that is to say, if his own account is any authority – All non-sense…Paganini was born at Lynn in Massacheusetts [sic]. He is the son of a poor woman, and made shoes in that town for many years…’

It has long been assumed that we violinists are, at best, feckless, at worst, murderous. I have experienced this myself; when my wife told her stepfather she was marrying a musician, he sent her comprehensive list of the failings of fiddlers. I’m not sure that I have succeeded in convincing him otherwise. In 1802, Wilhelm Triest wrote a pen-portrait of this popular cliché. We are, apparently prone to:

“Immodesty, bizarre temperament, and a general tendency towards gambling, the opposite sex, and alcohol.”

However, Paganini was incensed by an attack which appeared in 1824, four years before he travelled north of the Alps for the first time. In his Vie de Rossini, Stendhal alleged that Paganini had learnt the violin whilst incarcerated (other versions of this story were that he had murdered his wife). Paganini was, publicly, infuriated by the book (I suspect that he was delighted at the notoriety). Writing to Germi from Venice on the 24th July 1824 he begged him to write an article denouncing Stendhal, whose writing he found ‘idiotic’. Paganini was well aware of the useful publicity that attended from the publication of both Stendhal’s libellous piece, and the denunciation which he entreated Germi to write. On the 27th November, in Trieste, he noted that Germi’s riposte had ‘caused a furore in Venice’: Mission accomplished. It strikes me that commissioning Schottky’s biography was his attempt to re-ignite the scandal around his name, to create buzz, interest, a small part of the astonishingly successful publicity campaign which roared around him for the duration of his travels.

Stendhal, by Olof Johan Södermark, 1840

Balancing this notoriety, Paganini was concerned to be seen to do good works, charity concerts, wherever he played. When Cholera struck Paris for the first time in the spring of 1832, Paganini gave a charity concert directed by Habeneck. On the 18th April, he wrote Germi: ‘On Thursday next, I am playing a concert at the Gran Teatro to benefit the victims. Rossini, afraid, has run away – unlike I, whose one desire has only ever to of use to humanity.

But the ‘Red Book’ provides another angle on Paganini’s kindness; it contains a number of lists of complimentary tickets. The balance between concert receipts and the goodwill created by free tickets is a delicate one for musicians to strike to this day. Paganini liked to deal personally with the box office, visiting shortly before the concert, to check the ‘comp list’, and the takings; this was, more often than not, to ensure that promoters were not taking more than their fair share.

The ‘Red Book’ contains columns of people that Paganini, hoped to meet, or met, in the course of his ‘grand tour’. The list of connections on the page marked ‘Warsaw’ begins with a striking entry:

‘M.Chopin – giovine Pianista’

The twenty-year old Fredryck Chopin heard Paganini perform in Warsaw Cathedral on May 24, 1829, the Coronation day (as King of Poland), of  Tsar Aleksandr II of Russia. He later noted:

‘If I were such a pianist as Paganini is a violinist I should like to engage in a similar competition with a pianist of equal powers.’

Chopin would have been delighted to read Felix Mendelssohn’s reaction to hearing him play in 1834. He wrote his mother that Chopin was:

‘…quite a second Paganini executing all sorts of impossibilities which one thought could not be done.’

One page of the ‘Red Book’ is headed ‘July 1829/ at Breslau.’ This is followed by a list of contacts, including Kapellmeister Schnabel, and ‘Panofka.Violin’. The career of Breslau-born violinist Heinrich Panofka reflected the interchange between string playing and singing. Panofka had was one of the most distinguished students of the Viennese virtuoso and composer Josef Mayseder. In the late 1830s he took up vocal studies in Paris, where in 1842, he founded an ill-fated ‘Academie de Chant des Amateurs’, before moving to London to become assistant conductor of the ‘Italian Opera’ in 1847. His compositions are divided between early virtuoso violin works and vocal teaching materials. One notably Paganini-esque violin piece survives, an imitation of Paganini’s Carnival of Venice, a Carnival of Naples. Ironically, this was dedicated this to Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, whose reputation rested on his own version of Paganini’s ‘party piece’.

Heinrich Panofka, in his later life as a successful vocal coach in London

Healthcare is a constant concern for touring musicians. Paganini, like many of his contemporaries, suffered more or less constant toothache. From October 1828, his letters document ever more serious problems with his teeth. Taking the waters in Karlsbad, where he gave two concerts, his ‘cure’ was interrupted by a violent inflammation of the saliva glands on his left gum, necessitating an operation by four surgeons. Three months later, he had endured another surgical intervention in Prague. Many violinists endure dental trouble on the left hand side of the jaw. Paganini’s problem, without modern dental care, would be intolerable. In the modern age these problems only increased with the use of the chin to grip the violin against the collar bone, or shoulder, and the consequent exposure of the jaw to the vibrations of energetic playing.

Cleary, Paganini hoped that he would find relief from his oral pain in Paris or London, and he sought out the leading dentists in each city that he visited. In London, he sought out the leading oral surgeon, Samuel Cartwright, and regularly played at his famous salon evenings. One page in the ‘Red Book’, headed ‘Letters of recommendation for Paris’, includes: ‘Le Chevl. Lemaire/Dentiste’

Pistrucci’s bust of Samuel Cartwright being positioned in my exhibit at the NPG ‘Only Connect’

Joseph Jean Baptiste Lemaire was the most celebrated dentist/oral surgeon in Paris, born into a medical family in Brest in 1784. His practice in Paris was on Rue de Richelieu, and he was on the Faculty of Medicine of the University. His patients ranged from Josephine Beaumarchais to Pope Pius VII, and in 1833, he became the personal dentist of King Louis Philippe.

Maximilian I of Bavaria presented this chest of instruments to Lemaire in 1825

As a Londoner, and a walker, I love to haunt the same side streets as the figures from the past that I revere. Paganini lodged in Westminster and Marylebone, which had, since the French Revolution, been crammed with émigrés, and was, like him, francophone. He surely would have walked along Brook Street, past George Frederick Handel’s London house, which much later, Jimi Hendrix called home. If he was walked east, he would come to Portland Place, maybe en-route to see George and Lucy Anderson. The first entry marked ‘pour London’ [sic] in the Red Book simply notes that George Anderson’s address in London, from the ‘end of March’ will be: ‘2 New Cavendish Street, Portland Place’

It’s interesting that Paganini notes the address and the ‘cross street’. He’d feel very at home in New York, or Chicago, where every taxi driver demands this. Violinist George Anderson was active as an orchestral leader; he married pianist Lucy Philpot, in 1820. She later became piano tutor to Queens Adelaide and Victoria and music tutor to the royal family. I discovered her inscription in the extraordinary album kept by Eliza Wesley:

‘Lucy Anderson Pianiste and Instructress to Her Majesty Queen Victoria-August 3rd 1842’

Lucy Anderson’s personal entry in the Red Book,  ‘Madame Anderson/Pianiste a Londres’, appears to be in the same handwriting; perhaps Paganini ran into her elsewhere, and she wrote in his book.

Lucy Anderson lived till 1876. Here, the ’eminent pianist’ in later life

Anderson was the piano student of the first Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, the multi-talented William Crotch, and the first-ever female piano soloist at the Philharmonic Society Concerts (1822). She was the dedicatee of Hummel’s Grand Military Septet, but also renowned for her society ‘nous’. She would have been very useful contact for Paganini to know, especially for her royal connections. Paganini, encouraged by his one-time secretary George Harrys, gave careful thought how to ‘work’ London society. Lucy Anderson and her husband would have been seen as important allies in his successful campaign.

After visiting the Andersons, Paganini might have decided to walk to the hotel on Leicester Square where he sometimes stayed, ‘La Sablonnière’ (where another great traveller, Hans Christian Anderson later had rooms). After crossing Oxford Street, he would have found himself in one of the most musical corners of London, Golden Square. It was described well by Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby:

‘Two or three violins and a wind instrument from the Opera band reside within its precincts. Its boarding-houses are musical, and the notes of pianos and harps float in the evening time round the head of the mournful statue, the guardian genius of a little wilderness of shrubs, in the centre of the square. On a summer’s night, windows are thrown open, and groups of swarthy moustached men are seen by the passer-by, lounging at the casements, and smoking fearfully. Sounds of gruff voices practising vocal music invade the evening’s silence; and the fumes of choice tobacco scent the air. There, snuff and cigars, and German pipes and flutes, and violins and violoncellos, divide the supremacy between them. It is the region of song and smoke. Street bands are on their mettle in Golden Square; and itinerant glee-singers quaver involuntarily as they raise their voices within its boundaries.’

But, as the ‘Red Book’ reveals, he probably walked there to visit:

‘…To the care of Mr Stodart, Golden Square’

The 1828 Stodart ‘compensating’ piano (at the Royal Academy of Music)-the label showing the ‘Golden Square’ address.

The piano maker William Stodart was an inventor of genius. In 1820 he introduced an innovatory ‘compensating piano’. This was designed intended to keep the piano in tune, whatever the temperature or humidity, through the use of brass and iron attachments to counter changes in tension by a ‘compensation frame’. Paganini was fascinated with instrument technology; he corresponded with luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume about steel violin bow. He would have been intrigued by Stodart’s pianos.

There’s no page of the ‘Red Book’ which charms me more than the one which includes just a name and a city:

‘Mr Wellman-Southampton.’

This reminds me of the importance of local promoters in the UK, which never had the network of regional theatres and the Kapelle found in the German principalities. Touring musicians relied on independent promoters, many of whom, like ‘Mr Wellman’, were the proprietors of local music shops.  On the playbill for Paganini’s 1832 Southampton concerts, ‘Mr Wellman’ announced that he:

 ‘…has the honour to inform the Nobility and Gentry of Southampton  the County of Hants his Grand Evening Concert, will take place on Thursday Next, August 30th, on which occasion he has engaged the celebrated Signor Paganini, who will perform four of his most Favourite pieces, and will be accompanied by a First Rate pianist from London, etc. TICKETS. 7s, 6d, to be had at Mr Wellman’s Music Warehouse, 170 High Street.’

Paganini’s concert was at the ‘Long Rooms’, the ball room of the ‘Dolphin Hotel’, established in 1775, where the author Jane Austen had loved to dance.

The Long Room was behind the bay window on the 1st Floor (English style) on the right

‘Mr Wellman’ was trying to satisfy the cultural appetites and social pretension of his audience, informing the ‘Nobility and Gentry…’ of the upcoming performance. This was by way of assuring them of the ‘quality’ of their fellow listeners. Lord Byron had also worried about the condescension necessary to attend ‘popular’ concerts,  and that he would have to ‘rub shoulders’ with: ‘The pert shopkeeper, whose throbbing ear aches with orchestras which he pays to hear…’. In the post-Revolutionary world, the rising middle classes were confident that concerts and the theatre were now as much for them as the erstwhile ‘betters’. But ‘Mr Wellman’ could give no assurance, when Paganini gave his ‘Long Room’ concerts, that those of bon ton might would not find themselves awkwardly close to someone ‘in trade’.

The name Karl Möser, which appears on a number of the Berlin pages devoted to Berlin in the ‘Red Book’. On the list of ‘recommendations for Berlin’ his name appears as: ‘Mr Möser [‘t’], Primo Violino’.  On the 6th April 1829, Paganini gave a concert at the Royal Opera House in Berlin, advertised to be ‘unter Direktion des Musik- Directors Herrn C. Möser’.

This is the first link that we have between Paganini and Clara Wieck (later Schumann). When Clara made her appearances in Berlin, she was accompanied by the renowned quartet led by Möser. He had been appointed Konzertmeister by Wilhelm II in 1811, and started his series of renowned ‘Quartette-Abende’ in 1813. He had been Kapellmeister in 1825. Clara’s father, who managed her touring, was so outraged that Möser dared to ask for 15 complimentary tickets for her concerts, that he publicised his outraged, anti-Semitic, refusal. Clara first met Paganini during her first visit to Paris in 1832. Unfortunately for her, the concert of his that she was invited to play in, was cancelled due to his illness. The last time that they met, he wrote out a favourite chromatic scale in her album.

As Paganini travelled, town to town, city to city, he endeavoured to play wherever he laid his head. The next generation of musicians were able to take advantage of the rapid expansion of the railway network which followed the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester (the first passenger steam railway) in September 1830. We don’t know whether Paganini ever travelled by train; as is clear from the lists moneys paid to postilions and the painstaking lists of carriage changes in the Red Book, he took careful note of the detail of horse-drawn travel. In the UK, his determined to play everywhere that he had to stop for the night, he performed in the most modest venues, from the Long Rooms in Southampton, to the Albion Music Hall in Leeds, which meant working local musicians of far-from-international standing or standard.

Paganini at the Albion Music Hall, Leeds. 1832 Lithograph by Henry Andrews Taylow

The contrast with the stellar colleagues listed in the book could not been greater. His most trusted colleague was with the great Paris-based violinist director François Antoine Habeneck. The work with Habeneck was one of equals, and after their first initial collaboration 1831, they worked together regularly. Paganini addressed Francois Antoine affectionately as ‘Abnek’, was the only musician he allowed to see, and trusted to own copies of the full scores of his works, which he jealously kept from the eyes of rivals. This was compliment indeed.

In the ‘Red Book’, Paganini wrote a draft for a letter of thanks to his friend and colleague. Its tone is striking:

‘I do not want to leave Paris without extending my appreciation to you for the pains which you have taken in conducting my concerts, and the talents which you have deployed to aid me in my triumph. ….. It is only in Paris that I have had the opportunity to hear the greatest orchestra in in Paris play my music as I wrote it, and to be perfectly accompanied.’

A summer evening on Camden High Street, London. A group of passers-by gathers, intrigued by the playing of a young busker with an electric guitar, as he builds a performance of ever-increasing energy, passion, eventually hysteria on the pavement, while the early evening traffic, streams past him. In many ways, his appearance is sui generis; pencil-thin, dirty black jeans, battered Converse All-stars, a white vest that barely finds purchase on his skeletal frame, a pale face that has certainly never seen sunshine,  thick black eye make-up, long greasy black hair. He’s somewhere between Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper and Alanis Morisette, and it’s clear that most if not all of his nutrition comes from the roll-up drooping from his lower lip. It’s not really my kind of thing … but, there’s something about him; the playing is far from original, and much of his posturing, fake guitar smashing (there are no roadies, and it’s clear that this instrument is precious to him), and ‘Back to the Future’ final freak out are equally clichéd. Indeed, there’s an interesting moment, about 5 minutes into his 10 minute performance, when reality cuts in, and the feed to his amplifier breaks down: ‘Keep fucking playing’, he roars to his drummer, who obliges whilst he struggles with the leads. There’s something about him. The crowd grows intrigued attracted by uncharacteristic commitment, the devil-may-care attitude of his playing, and something happens. This is the 21st century, so the ‘flicking of the switch’, the moment that interested bystanders become an audience, is initially manifest, in the growing number of  raised phones, filming. Surviving the amplifier catastrophe, his performance becomes, something more than the questionable musical quality of its content, and his listeners, consciously or not, become swept up in the flood-tide of his nicotine-fuelled passion. There’s cheering, applause, as he lunges between Van Halen licks and unintelligible rantings of love and loss, and then pogo-ing, head-banging. They, and I are transported. This crowd of shoppers and pub-goers on a North London high street are now initiates, disciples, converts. They have found their star, and they will him to the finish line-prone on the tarmac, exhausted.

So it ever was in this city. If this was 1831, there would have been fainting, and maybe silk handkerchiefs would have been thrown, less head-banging. I realise that I have witnessed, albeit in miniature, and en plein air, a modern version of Paganini’s impact. There is no question, that the popular British imagination was most ready for Paganini’s arrival. Reading the poetic and journalistic responses, it is almost as the writers were responding to a manifestation of the enduringly popular Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s wilder self, as if the violinist Paganini was the poet reborn, a bard spinning his own musical Kublai Khan:

 ‘Beware, beware, his shining eyes, his waving hair, /For he hath fed on honeydew, and drunk the milk of paradise.’

A year later, the Journal des debats noted (the plague had just arrived in Paris):

‘Paganini…reparait dans ces jours de peste, cet homme noir. Ce sombre genie á la tête penchée, aux cheveux flottants au corps brise et qui plié sur la hanche droite; le voilà qui rejette en l’air de son archet et son âme…c’est certainement la plus bizarre et la plus sublime creature des temps modernes, tout celà un jour de peste-un vendredi saint.’

It is clear to me, that the imaginative vein which was triggered by every aspect of Paganini on his travels, as documented in the ‘Red Book’, set a model of the extreme performer which I was witnessing on Camden High Street.  Paganini is still with us.

The Paganini Project. Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress 15 12 12. On stage, two Strads, the Brookings Amati and the Kreisler del Gesu. Bows by Stephen Bristow and Antonino Airenti