The legendary violinist Niccolo Paganini was not a great composer. He was, unquestionably, the greatest violinist and performer of his age (and, perhaps, any age). Paganini pushed the boundaries of what was possible and composed works that pushed what is technically possible on a violin to its absolute limit. It is also worth noting that Paganini played pretty much every string instrument that existed, excelling on the cello and guitar. But his fame was forged on the violin and the violin most associated with him, his Guarneri—the “Canon”—is on display in Genoa and still loaned for performances. It was not his only instrument and his Strads and Amatis have been owned and played by many contemporary musicians. His taste in instruments notwithstanding, his greatest contribution to the repertoire are his 24 Caprices, showstoppers that truly separate the wheat from the chaff.
I will confess to bringing Paganini into our discussion here so that I could talk about the tragic life of Michael Rabin. Rabin should have been the next great one. Born a generation after Heifetz, Menhuin, Oistrakh, etc., he burst onto the scene at 13, making his Carnegie Hall debut at 15 with Paganini’s Violin Concerto. Three years later, he made his European debut in London with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Brave boy. Tragically, a little bit over a decade later he would be dead at 35 from a neurological condition that first presented itself during a concert at Carnegie. His recordings went out of print by the 1970s and became a sort of holy grail for violinists.
Like Paganini, Rabin preferred the more sonorous sounds of a Guarneri. Remastered recordings are only available on streaming services—I commend them, all of them–to you.
Paganini’s legacy is daunting for any violinist. He was more than just a virtuoso; he was an international sensation. He did things on the violin that no one had ever seen. He was the first to perform without sheet music. He was also dramatic, famously contorting his body on stage, earning the name “Rubber Man” as a result. But what comes down to us in history are the details of his exceptionally long and thin fingers, which have led modern scholars to speculate that he suffered from Mafran’s Syndrome—how else to explain his ability to play three octaves without shifting his hand? And while we should be very distrustful of any speed record from the 19th century, he reportedly could exceed 12 notes per second. To put that in conext, the current world record holder–nearly 200 years later–was timed at 13 notes per second.
Paganini’s contributions to violin technique are far too numerous to be listed here. And every violinist I know, lists him as the greatest ever, despite any actual first hand evidence of his artistry. Perhaps this is in homage to the rumor that he, like Robert Johnson after him, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for these otherworldly gifts. How can you top that? The questionable truth of the source of Paganini’s gifts and strange physique aside, these are incredible pieces to hear live. Here’s Rabin playing the devilishly difficult Caprice No. 5 at breakneck speed.
Niccolo Paganini, 24 Caprices, Caprice No. 5:
And if you thought that sounded familiar, it’s because of this:
My favorite of the 24 is the last, the most melodic of the bunch. Here’s Maxim Vengerov, the greatest violinist of our generation, tackling it.
Niccolo Paganini, 24 Caprices, Caprice No. 24:
BONUS Conversation! Now if you thought that was a really swinging tune, so did the great jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. A century on, here’s his swinging version:
Benny Goodman, Paganini Caprice No. 24:
And with Benny Goodman, of all people, we close the book on the Classical Period. On to the Romantics.