Sonata per la grand viola

            Paganini is perhaps the best representative of a major characteristic of nineteenth-century romantic music:  the rise of the astounding virtuoso performer.  Today, musical audiences of more than a century later still revel in hearing performances by outstanding executants on their instruments.  Franz Liszt, with Paganini as a model, was a rival showman on the piano, and there were any number of later conductors who helped establish the “cult of personality” associated with the conductor as maestro.  Paganini’s virtuosity was legendary, and he composed many works to play, himself—many of which were published only after his death, owing to the belief that only he could play them.  Admittedly, most of them are no match in profundity for the great composers of the time, relying as they do, upon entertaining difficulty and dazzling passagework for their appeal.   Nevertheless, Paganini did have a real gift for melodic invention; Rossini, a close friend, once observed that had Paganini composed operas he would have “knocked out all of us.”

            Born in Genoa, Paganini spent most of his life on the road—earlier in Italy, and later in the rest of Europe--playing solo concerts of his own music, and making prodigious amount of money in the process.  He was known for his ability to spread his fingers wide, facilitating unusual effects on the violin, which he incorporated into his compositions.  Today, many of them are standard repertory work for advanced students.  His favorite violin, a Guarneri del Gesù, which he called “The Cannon” for its powerful sound, was altered by fitting a larger fingerboard and a somewhat flatter bridge to ease the production of triple stops and double harmonics.  It still exists today in the city of Genoa, and is frequently taken out of display and played.

            The Sonata per la grand viola stems from the early 1830s, during which time Paganini had become interested in the viola.  The composition of this work was a reaction to his dissatisfaction with the sketches of a viola concerto that he had commissioned from Berlioz--more on that, anon.  He gave the premiere in London in 1834, using an unusually large viola—hence the title.  Violas, from an acoustic consideration, are really too small for their pitch and its effect on the tension on their strings, so performers try to use the largest one that they can hold and reach the positions on.  Paganini’s work is fairly difficult, so it was not played as much over the years as one might expect.  It now has taken its place in the repertoire for virtuoso violists, and is much appreciated.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© William E. Runyan