Thursday 27 June 2013

A new book by Mai Kawabata, from Boydell Press, that looks at the myth surrounding Paganini in a volume that is both informative and entertaining

A brief search on the internet for references to Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840)  brings up a variety of accounts of the man, as a composer and principal violin virtuoso of the 19th century, a popular idol who inspired the Romantic mystique of the virtuoso, or the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his time, who left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique to references to reports from a ‘half crazed’ listener that for some days he had seen the Devil helping the violinist.

So what of the myth surrounding Paganini and of the man behind all the hype? A new publication from Boydell Press  entitled Paganini - The ‘Demonic’ Virtuoso by Mai Kawabata investigates the legend of the man.

Boydell Press
Hardback - ISBN: 9781843837565
First Published: 20 June 2013
Pages: 303
Size: 23.4 x 15.6

Mai Kawabata  is a Lecturer in Music at the University of East Anglia and a professional violinist. Her main research interests are violin virtuosity, the history of musical performance, music and narrative, the cultural history of instruments, and subjectivity in performance.  She has also published articles on the image of violin virtuosi as symbols of military power, on the quality of narration projected by the violin in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and on the viola's 'anti-virtuosic' role in Berlioz's Harold in Italy. She has presented her research at international conferences, the American Musicological Society, and the Institute of Musical Research. She is a contributor to the Hamburg Hochschule's MUGI project and is at present researching the history of violinist genealogies.

One only has to look at the chapter heading Hypererotiscm and Violence to see that Mai Kawabata has written a book that looks at all aspects of the cult surrounding Paganini. But there is much more besides, with Kawabata looking at Paganini’s violin technique, musical ethos and his place in a wider cultural context.

She has gathered together a huge amount of information from an impressive number of sources to produce a volume that gives a great insight into what exactly was behind the self promotion, reputation and, indeed, cult surrounding Paganini

Chapter 1: Introduction does more than briefly set out the intentions of the book, it looks at the violinist’s technique, deducing the likely span of his left hand, considers what techniques were actually used in Paganini’s virtuosity through analysing the Caprices, as well as looking at the ‘Paganini Cult’.

Mai Kawabata’s Introduction goes on to explain how she has drawn on evidence from two primary sources, firstly the scores of Paganini’s compositions and secondly historical and biographical documents including reviews, caricatures, treatises and letters from Paganini’s own time.

Chapter 2: ‘Demonic’ Violinist, Magical Violinist takes the reader through the construction of the whole mystification process from Paganini’s seemingly inhuman violinistic abilities, apparently indicating his soullessness, and the suggestion that he had exchanged his humanity for virtuoso powers in some kind of Faustian pact, the early power of the press to describe and depict him as Mephistopheles, to the expectations of his audiences, all set within an era that encompassed the popularity of Goethe’s Faust, post enlightenment secularism and a breakdown of sexual taboos.

Chapter 3: Hypererotiscm and Violence, the author examines how the demonic and erotic supposedly overlapped in figurations of virtuoso violin performance. We are told that Paganini’s biographers agree that the famous violinist had an unusually developed libido that was reflected in terms of his pleasure, recreation and conquest. Quite how this affected his playing is another matter given that Kawabata acknowledges that musicologists have given such hypereroticism little attention.

Yet it seems that the affect of such hypereroticism is not far fetched at all given that at the Court of Lucca, between 1801 and 1805, Paganini went so far as to mimic the sighs and moans of erotic arousal when he improvised a ‘dialogue’ between Adonis and Venus. Kawabata goes into much evidence based detail which I will not ruin by describing more fully here.

Chapter 4: Sovereignty, Domination and Conquest looks at Paganini’s quest for personal glory and all that it could bring by way of social and material advantages. This is fully understandable given his rise from poverty as the son of a dock worker in Genoa. He soon progressed from court violinist at Lucca to becoming a freelance violinist travelling throughout Italy then the whole of Europe. Paganini later said,’ When I became my own master, I enjoyed life in rich, full draughts’ a comment that speaks volumes.

Chapter 5:  Paganini’s Legacies explores the legacy of Paganini on later violin performance and cultural history though excluding any examination of the numerous variations on his now famous Caprice No.24. Amongst a number of other virtuoso violinists, there is an engraving of a rather refined and staid looking Isaac Collins ‘the English Paganini’ (1797-1871), a far remove from some of the manic images of Paganini. Paganini’s Misconstrued Legacy of Technique Fetishisation looks at how, by the end of the 19th century, many critics saw the instrumental technique of imitators of Paganini as superficial, vainglorious and aesthetically bankrupt and how performers moved from a display of their own works to the interpretation of works by others.

The Epilogue: Paganinian Mythology covers post Paganini Italian violin virtuosos from Filippo Romagnoli (1822-1884) to the 20th century’s own Salvatore Accardo. The section on Paganini’s ‘Secret Red Book’ , something that acquired a talismanic mystique thought to contain the secrets of the violinist’s technique and even details of his love affairs, is revealed but you will have to buy the book to find out its contents.

The fascinating Appendix: Paganiniana in the British Press (1840-1900) alone takes up around 40% of the book. It covers a huge array of documentation from British Press articles, fiction, verse and even a ‘true story’ about Paganini’s false teeth.

The book includes an extremely large bibliography that includes everything from newspapers and periodicals to primary sources and secondary literature, select recordings, films inspired by Paganini and useful websites. There are black and white illustrations, musical examples and tables as well as a full index.

This new book looks at a popular subject in the most scholarly way, drawing on a vast amount of material in order to produce a volume that is both informative and entertaining.

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