For her performance here in January, violinist Rachel Barton Pine set herself a formidable challenge: performing the 24 Caprices for solo Violin, Op. 1, by Nicolò Paganini, one of history’s most sensational virtuosos. For her performance of the first 12 Caprices at the Phillips (the concluding set played later that evening at the National Gallery of Art) Barton Pine shared the stage with Eugène Delacroix’s haunting portrait of Paganini, looming over her shoulder and casting a frightening eye on proceedings.
There is an enduring mystique in the man and his music that still fascinates today. Paganini’s astonishing and revolutionary developments in violin playing were in his day only equaled by his notoriety-–he cancelled concerts on a whim, frequented brothels, brushed up against the law, and despite his gaunt and ghostly appearance, was surrounded by groupies. Truly he was the musical enfant terrible of the 19th century. However, stories of his life emerge with more than a shade of byronesque fascination, and the wild-man persona was all part of an image, as Barton Pine explained: “When people saw him doing all these seemingly impossible feats they said: ‘Well to be able to play like that he must have had to sell his soul.’ Well Paganini being a great showman as well as a great artist realized that a devilish reputation might help to sell tickets, so he didn’t always protest these accusations.”
Delacroix captures Paganini’s enigma well; shades of light are clawing their way out of predominant darkness, and those we can see–his pale haunted visage, unkempt shirt, and long spidery fingers–are peculiar and unsettling. The portrait also reveals some illuminating technical aspects of Paganini’s playing style. Barton Pine explained that the physical feats he was able to achieve, indicated in the painting by his posture and position of his left arm, were most likely a symptom of Marfan syndrome, a disorder that affects the body’s ligaments and makes the joints more flexible. This condition likely helped Paganini to reach the interval of a 13th, at the very upper limit of what is possible for violinists today. It’s easy to see why superstitious audiences of the 19th century thought Paganini was in league with the devil, “But not to worry” Barton Pine explained, “I didn’t sell my soul, I just practiced a lot.”
For all the wizardry and pyrotechnics of the Caprices, what shines through in these captivating pieces is a wonderful sense of melody and musical line. Paganini was an underestimated composer with a unique affinity with the Italian Bel canto style. Barton Pine, whose commentary between pieces shed revealing light on the intricacies of the music, continued: “By expanding the technical capabilities of the instrument he really expanded the range of colors and expression that are possible from the instrument.” Throughout the myriad difficulties of triple stops, awkward octaves, and fiendish upward staccato, this expanded expressiveness is what stood out in her immaculate performance. Her sheer joy in the music was self-evident, and in the hands of such a fine and dedicated musician the seemingly impossible technical feats dissolved away, revealing the beauties and melodies beneath.
Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant