Possessed or Blessed

Niccolo Paganini, who is considered the greatest violin virtuoso of all time, was probably one of the most erratic figures of all time. Through his numerous performances all over Europe, he enthralled and inspired every audience, including musicians of his era.

Niccolò Paganini (1819), by Ingres

 Listen to Joshua Bell and Sharon Isbin perform Paganini's Cantabile at the White House Evening of Classical Music on 4 November 2009.

Hector Berlioz
Franz Schubert was mystified by him, Rossini was appalled by him, and Meyerbeer followed him from one concert to another not being able to get enough of his playing. Berlioz has described Paganini as "one of those artists of whom it must be said: 'They are because they are and not because others were before them'." In Paris, Liszt came under Paganini's spell and was so stimulated by his fabulous technical virtuosity, determined to accomplish similar miracles with the piano, and pushed his technique to the highest limits.

Paganini was considered a genius, a god, a devil worshiper, anything but that of reality. There was a rumor, for instance, that when Niccolo was only six, his mother made a pact with the Devil and is said to have traded his soul for a career as the greatest violinist in the world.

Paganini was a legend. In fact, he was so amazing no audience could succumb to any type of disturbance during the trance he created through his musical renditions. After borrowing a Guarnerius violin for a single concert, the lender begged him to keep it for fear of coming under Paganini's supernatural powers. He also won a Stradivarius violin in a similar manner by playing a technical piece by sight which was insisted that nobody could perform even after preparation.

1831 bulletin advertising a performance of Paganini
Besides his superb technical ability, his cadaverous appearance led to myths of all sorts. He was tall and thin, had a long nose, a pale and long-drawn face with hollow cheeks, thin lips that seemed to curl into a sardonic smile, and piercing eyes like flaming coals. The rumor was spread that he was the son of the Devil. It was difficult to think much otherwise as Paganini dressed in black, played weaving and flailing, with skinny fingers cavorting over the strings, and contorted shoulders giving him the appearance of a giant flapping bat. Paganini's every movement and every tone emanating from his violin seemed to support the 300-year-old myth that the violin was the "Devil's consort" and that the violinist himself was the Devil. Some people, when in his presence, would actually make the sign of the cross to rid themselves of what they believed were his evil powers. He was once forced to publish letters from his mother to prove he had human parents.

Whenever and wherever he played, he aroused tenor and awe in his audiences. There was the rumor that a satanic figure, a double of Paganini, always appeared in the audience in sombre black with the same long black locks, burning eyes, and sardonic smile. Or else the figure appeared on the stage at Paganini's side dressed in a red cloak and pantaloons, with horns, hooves, and a tail to guide Paganini's bow arm through a performance. It was believed that this figure raised a thunderstorm, during a concert and conducted lightening to the free end of the bow, and at another performance he actually took possession of Paganini's body. In spite of his appearance and the suspicions, however, he was worshiped wherever he went.

All parts of Europe were delighted with his music and women were spellbound at the sound of his hypnotic melodies. There was another rumor that he was the greatest womanizer of all time and that he killed a woman, imprisoned her soul in his violin, and used parts of her intestines as an eternal source of gut for his strings. The unearthly screams of women were sometimes heard coming from his violin as he played on stage.

Paganini was born of a poor family in 1782 at Genoa and showed a natural talent at a very early age. His father wanted his son to be a genius and did everything in his power to make that come true. He stood by him consistently when he practiced disciplining him severely with a rod that was seldom spared. His father was quite successful in his persistence for at the age of eight, he played a Pie yel Concerto in a Genoa church. He so enthralled the audience, that his playing became in great demand for local social gatherings. His teachers at that time were Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa. When he turned nine, he made an official debut in a Genoa concert auditorium playing his own composition, La Carmagnole which is a theme and variations. By age thirteen, he was known throughout the town as the "wonderchild."

He continued with his studies in Leghorn with Ferdinando Paer and in Parma with Alessandro Rolla, which began his first extended concert tour. He succeeded rapidly in the cities of Lombardy playing many of his own electrifying compositions.

At the age of seventeen, he was on his own. He no longer needed financial assistance from his father and broke away assured of his talent. Freed for the first time of his father's strictness, he gave in to his two passions - women and gambling -- to which he was thenceforth to be addicted.

At the turn of the century, he disappeared from the public eye. It is generally believed that he fell in love with a Guscan noble lady and lived with her at her chateau. At this time, he abandoned the violin temporarily because of his mistress' wishes and concentrated his virtuoso and creative gifts on the guitar. He also composed several pieces and chamber works for the guitar. But, after three years, he returned to his native city to study, play, and compose at full intensity.

The most amazing stories were heard about his performances. The most famous is of the concert in Leghorn. When a string of his violin snapped in an intricate passage, the audience began expressing derision. But when Paganini continued to play the piece on three strings instead of four, the derision turned to wonder and awe. From then on Paganini would not hesitate to use this devise on purpose to further entrance his audience. Often he would use worn strings so that he could complete his performance on three or even two strings when they snapped. Later he got the idea to write entire pieces for a single string, such as the Fantasia on the G String.

By 1813, Paganini became the greatest violinist of his day and the most worshiped. He spent the next decade and a half performing numerous concerts throughout Italy. His health, however, was turning bad which limited his touring voyages to his own country. When he finally left his country to perform in other parts of Europe, the concert halls were filled immediately and crowds rushed to see for themselves the creature that was so talked about. In 1828, he was in Vienna where he hypnotized his audience. Everyone was talking about him. Snacks and billiard shots were named after him.

After Vienna, he traveled extensively throughout Germany and in 1831, he arrived in Paris, his ultimate goal. In Paris, there was a study made of him because his unusual appearance created an abnormal "presence" about him. Up until then there was no challenge as to the idea that he was possessed by the devil or was some sort of god himself. Through this study, however, it was found that his physical characteristics were linked to his mental abilities; the same qualities which characterize a genius.

In his tour to England and Scotland, Paganini made the largest sum of money that any performing artist had earned up to that time in a single trip.

He returned to Italy and purchased an estate near Parma where he made several concert appearances despite his suffering from poor health. He lost some of his fortune in a gambling house named after him, thus making him restless and weary. He started coughing and eventually lost his voice completely in 1838. He went to Nice for a rest cure - but neither rested nor was cured. He spent his last hours improvising feverishly on his violin, defying his rapidly waning strength. Finally, he died on May 27, 1840.

Paganini on his death bed

For five years the Church, disturbed as to his orthodoxy, refused his body interment in consecrated ground, and so it was laid to rest in a village graveyard on his own estate. The people in nearby towns use to say that every night they heard the sounds of a ghostly violin emanating from that coffin. The legend of Paganini's life lasted until the very end.

Reposed From Guitarra Magazine

Practice Makes Perfect


The violin is an extremely volatile instrument.  Its precocious nature is to blame for many deaths by suicide.  The pressure of improving and the stress that goes along with it has caused countless mental breakdowns.  These facts may shock the reader, but they’re true.  Even the truly great players of past and present have confessed that some days they just don’t have it.

As a guitarist I have spent many concerts and club dates backing up jazz and or classical fiddlers and their insights and psychological struggles with the instrument are telling to say the least.  Every professional fiddler has his or her own methods as to performing and practicing.

One night I was part of a concert in California that included Frank Sinatra’s concert master:  a beautiful violinist with a truly “old world” sound.  When he discovered that I too had been a sucker for the fiddle, we hung out and I put forward the primary question asked of most string players; how do you practice?  He smiled and said, “Well, every morning I take out my violin and tune it, rosin up the bow, and then set them on a table and wait for them to call me over!”  I believe that this is the best answer I ever received to that question.

You can own a Stradivarius worth millions and there are just some days that it sounds like it is stuffed full of cotton.  Climate conditions, dry weather and humidity all contribute to the inconstancy of priceless Italian violins.   Add to this the fact that the instrument is not held in a natural position on the body.  Many violinists have had severe shoulder and back injuries that have caused them to take time off or quit all together.  Nigel Kennedy comes to mind at the moment.  Several years ago his neck was so damaged from playing that he had to take two years off.
Acquiring the necessary technique to perform consistently day in and day out is a pattern of rigorous physical demands as well as the mental stress which accompanies the process.  Think of it.  The sound, good or bad, is merely a few inches from your ear while practicing.  Both arms and hands are doing something different, unlike the piano which has similar duties for both extremities.  Once in an interview Itzhak Perlman was asked if the violin was a difficult  instrument to learn?  He smiled and said, “…well now, you take the average person and sit them down at the piano and in a matter of a few minutes at the most, they will be able to peck out the melody to ‘twinkle, twinkle little star.’  Give them a violin and come back a year later for the same result!”

In the early seventies I auditioned for a solo spot with a symphony composed by one of Stravinsky’s students which featured electric guitar and orchestra.  I got the job and went on a four Symphony tour which included being on the bill opposite, Gary Graffman, Daniel Barenboim and Itzhak Perlman.  Perlman found a kindred soul in me because of my bout with polio.  He invited me to his dressing room to see his Strad.  When he went to hand it to me he let it slip in his hands as if he were about to drop it.  I panicked.  He smiled and said,   “I won’t let you handle it, I’m sorry, you’re too nervous.”  Then he tossed it up in the air and caught it.  “You have to treat it like a two dollar fiddle or you are sure to break it.”

Jakob Stainer

Jakob Stainer, from Absam in Tyrol, ubiquitously acknowledged to be the greatest luthier of all times, set the standard for European violin-making until 1800; his violin would command a price six or seven times greater than those of Antonio Stradivari.

It is only towards the very end of the 18th Century that the fashion for that Cremonese master superceded that of Stainer and his followers. Heinrich Biber ordered instruments from Stainer for the Salzburg Court;  Johann Sebastian Bach played on a Stainer Viola;
Pietro Antonio Locatelli performed his bold concerti on a Stainer violin; Leopold Mozart played throughout his life on one of his excellent instruments and decried the decline of quality of contemporary (1750) violin making. Stainer’s instruments have been copied more frequently that any other maker in history. 

All the bass viols by Jakob Stainer were made on exactly the same pattern: their contours can be superimposed on one another. He invariably used bird's eye maple for the back and sides although some were made of several stripes of different species of woods.

Francesco Maria Veracini, a violin virtuoso, affectionately named his two Stainer violins “Petrus & Paulus”

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Dendrochronology Applied to Stringed Instruments

In the past few years, there have been important advances in a number of scientific techniques that can help shed light on the physical properties of instruments. Perhaps the most prominent of these has been dendrochronology, the process of determining the age of wood by analysing the patterns of tree rings. 

Micha Beuting taking data on a violoncello

The Method of Dendrochronology

To build a chronology for the purpose of dating instruments one starts with cores from living trees or cross sections taken from cut spruces. From this material the initial chronology is built. In a next step the tree-ring pattern of older material, for example, wood from keyboard instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries, is overlapped with the inner rings of the living trees to extend the chronology. By repeated application of this same procedure the chronology is gradually extended into the past.

One of the most astonishing findings of researchers can be seenbelow. The sound hole on the left comes from a treble viol in festoon shape purchased in Spain around 1978. The sound hole on the right comes from a treble viol purchased at auction at Bonhams in 1998.  The buyer purchased this second viol, on the hunch that it was a twin of the first one. Dendrochronology has only now revealed not only the date of these two instruments: ca. 1730, but also that the tops were constructed from the very same tree! These two sisters, which had been separated for nearly 300 years, are now happily reunited and making music together again!

Treble viol in festoon form II, ca. 1730
Nicolò Amati
Leopold Widhalm
North Italian ca. 1760,

Violas da gamba:
Anonymous 1730 I
Anonymous 1730 II,

Ventura di Linarolo
Paolo Maggini
Jakob Stainer
Gianbattista Grancino
Johann Seeloss
Treble viol in festoon form II, ca. 1730

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"Il Cannone" Guarneri del Gesù 1743

 Since 1851 property of city of Genoa, Italy - the del Gesù owned and played by Paganini.

Today his mind was at war with his body. He knew he was dying. In the darkness of his Mediterranean apartment a vampire was sucking the blood from his veins. Long, pointed finger nails scraping the marrow of his bones. Surely, God must be laughing.

Crawling out of bed with only the strength of his arms to aid him, he grabbed the knife from the table and crouched on the floor. His breathing was labored, but for the sake of his son
he must finish what he’d begun three days ago. When Achilles returned with the doctor he would tell him the secret.

He removed the final plank of the flooring and inserted the violin case with the real 1742 Guarneri into the hiding spot, the instrument fashioned by the erratic genius of Cremona which had been his life-long companion: the voice which soared among the clouds.

~ Excerpt The Devil's Violin 

A quiet revolution against the easy way

I had a flirtation with the violin when I was 23. I had moved to L.A. at the time and there wasn't much to do. I was trying to make contacts.

I was going to the library a lot and I found a biography of Mozart who had written all of his violin concertos by the time he was 24 years old. And I thought: "I have to get a violin and find out about it."

So I got an old violin, a bow and a case for about $25 and I was too stupid to know that probably it had been in the shop for years and that it needed to be fixed. I just came home and started playing it. It was horrible ! I struggled with it for a while and gave it up.

Years later, again an accident. I had a cheap guitar I'd given to a little music store to sell for me. I wanted $250 for it. So I went in the store one day to see if they had sold my guitar. They had sold it, but the guy didn't have the money. Instead, he had a violin worth $250, so I took it home. I didn't have a bow, but then a very strange story : I was playing a jazz trio and a guy who repairs violin's bows walked in. He listened for a while then came up and introduced himself. He told me : "you left your violin bow with me and you never picked it up." and he handed it to me and left !

It is a very difficult instrument, very demanding. You should really start when you're five years old. It's an in and out instrument. I think the violin is the most living of all musical instruments, more so than the guitar would ever be. It talks to you, it tells you what it wants you to do and you have to listen. I'm not just talking from my standpoint. A lot of great violinist have said that. Then, there are little secrets about how to play and everybody has to find their own - because technically speaking it is impossible to play this instrument in tune and it has never been played in tune. We think it is in tune, our ears tell us it's in tune but you have to be able to hit something that is less than 1/10th of a millimeter with something that is 3 millimeters cross, how can you ? It is impossible. So by pushing it and hitting the note not quite right but by having your ear correct it in 100th of a millisecond, everybody thinks it is fine.

And to improvise on the instrument, that's where it becomes really difficult. It is not like playing a piece of Bach, where the notes are right in front of you. In jazz there are no notes, so you have to hear them. It's an instrument that demands that anyway, no matter if you're playing classical or Celtic Irish music or folk music... you have to hear the notes you want a split second before you play it - and that's a requirement in jazz, no matter what the instrument is.

Probably in some small way it was kind of my own intellectual rebellion against technology because you cannot push a button and play the violin.... a quiet revolution against the easy way."

From Art Johnson's interview on Jazz Break

Art is a natural part of the elite musicians of the south and participates in jazz events of the French Riviera.  Accompanied here by Ronnie Rae Jr. on piano, Jean-Luc Dana on drums and Marc Peillon.

Can you tell a fake instrument from the genuine article?

With more and more instrument forgeries finding their way on to the market, how do experts, dealers and buyers stay wise to deception?

How do you tell a Stradivari from a forgery; a Guarneri from a phony; an Amati from an amateur? It’s a question that has occupied luthiers, dealers and players all over the world for centuries, and it continues to challenge even the most experienced professionals today. Advances in technology in recent years have led to a number of new techniques for identifying fake instruments, but as the knowledge of the experts has improved, so has that of the fakers.

Faking in lutherie and dealing can be loosely divided into two main categories. The first is where a maker deliberately sets out to make a copy of an expensive inst
rument, painstakingly forging every detail in order to deceive dealers or buyers. The second is where certain unscrupulous dealers take an instrument, stick a fake label in it and then pass it off as an older, more expensive model. It has also been known for crooked dealers to add their own personal touches to an instrument, adding ageing or changing parts to deceive potential buyers.

According to Florian Leonhard, a London-based restorer and dealer of fine violins, the second breed of fake is more dangerous. ‘Where a maker has copied an instrument – say, for example, he tried to copy a Stradivari – it’s usually a clear-cut case,’ he says. ‘When you’ve seen 300 Stradivaris, you just know. But then you have dealers who use an old instrument that was made as a copy and to which they add features in order to deceive a client. They will distress an instrument, add ageing, retouch and re-varnish, and sometimes the instrument is already 150 years old. Those are the dangerous fakes – it requires a bit more skill to spot them. You have to see through many layers of faking and distinguish between repairs and reworkings.’

When it comes to spotting fakes, today’s dealers have several advantages compared with those operating in previous centuries or even as recently as 50 years ago. Perhaps the most obvious is that they are able to travel more easily, and therefore to accumulate more knowledge and experience. 

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The Devil's Violin

"Tartini's Dream" by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845). Illustration of the legend behind Giuseppe Tartini's "Devil's Trill Sonata".

The story behind "Devil's Trill" starts with a dream. Tartini allegedly told the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande that he dreamed that The Devil appeared to him and asked to be his servant. At the end of their lessons Tartini handed the devil his violin to test his skill—the devil immediately began to play with such virtuosity that Tartini felt his breath taken away. The complete story is told by Tartini himself in Lalande's Voyage d'un François en Italie (1765 - 66):

"One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and - I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the "Devil's Trill", but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me."