Regrettably, the sound recording technology was invented 37 years after Paganini’s death. So now we have only to settle for the descriptions of his style from the memoirs of his contemporaries.
And there are a lot of them. The only problem is that most are too exalted or poetic to tell something definite from the professional point of view. The most we can get from the historical accounts is that Paganini was a demonic creature with supernatural power to affect people. His mastery can’t be described using words, it exceeds all imagination. Here are some quotes:
"The greatness of this genius, unequalled, unsurpassed, precludes even the idea of a successor. No one will be able to follow in his footsteps; no name will equal in his glory.
…A miraculous being such as the world of music has known once, and once only" (Franz Liszt)
"It was music such as the ear could never hear, music such as the heart alone could ever dream of"(Henrich Heine)
"To describe him, one needs poetry or fairy tales. There is, in his appearance, something so demonic that one looks for a glimpse of cloven hoof or an angel's wing" (Leipzieger Musikalische Zeitung)
"Goethe's Mephisto would have played the violin like this.
Paganini is not himself; he is rather the incarnation of desire, of scorn, of madness, and burning pain; now this, now that" (Ludwig Rellstab)
And so forth, a great deal more of similar accounts.
The sound of Paganini’s violin has gone with him. Anyone who wrote about Paganini after his death, regretted to say that people will never hear something similar ever again.
However, there are some ways to not make this situation so desperately sad.
Imagine, you have old letters describing your great-grandmother as divinely beautiful, but don't have any images of her. Then you meet someone who happened to know your great-grandmother years ago, and who says that she looked a lot like Paulette Goddard, the third wife of Charlie Chaplin. You immediately find the photo of Paulette Goddard to get some idea what your great-grandma looked like. Now you have a much more definite image than you had from all the written accounts. Provided of course, that you believe this eyewitness.
So, when we have someone who observed both ladies and was able to make a truthful comparison between them, our desire to clarify the situation doesn’t look so hopeless anymore.
It turns out that this kind of comparison is possible in the case of Paganini.
First, we have the violinist whose recording we are able to hear now. Second, we have a witness who managed to meet and hear both this violinist and Paganini. We can believe this eyewitness with full confidence since he is an expert of the highest level of competency.
Who are those people? The witness is Franz Liszt, and the violinist is August Wilhelmj whose five pieces were recorded by Edison in 1900.
Wilhelmj was a child prodigy. The fact that at the age of 7 he was predicted to become the next Paganini can be taken with a certain amount of scepticism. But something more serious is that at the age of 16, he met Franz Liszt who became fascinated by his playing and sent him to the famous Ferdinand David with a recommendation letter. The letter contained the words “let me present you the future Paganini”.
Let’s note that it was the same Liszt who became astounded by Paganini in his youth and who was sure that “no one will be able to follow in his footsteps”. Obviously in his 50's, when he met Wihelmj, Liszt has become a bit realistic.
Liszt’s predictions came true. Wilhelmj became a cultural VIP of his era, the world renowned soloist and “the household name” at the same time. He was a close friend and colleague of Wagner and very famous author of a numerous transcriptions of classical pieces, some them are still popular today.
I have already posted three short fragments of Wilhelmj’s playing (obviously not the very best ones). Now we can listen to the first cylinder (they are three in total) of his recording of Witch's Dance by Paganini:
Is anyone shocked? Can this kind of playing mesmerise today?
If we would talk about the today’s standards of perfection, apparently not. Modern requirements for technical proficiency are much higher.
It could be argued, of course, that we are not dealing with the true Paganini here. Still, if to take into the account Liszt's assessment of Wilhelmj, this recording can be compared like the photo of Goddard in the story of a great-grandmother.
The important thing is that Wilhelmj was put on par with Paganini by an expert witness, so if these violinists even differed (and obviously they did), they couldn’t differ significantly. They couldn’t differ, for example, like Wilhelmj and Gitlis who played the Paganini concerto (in the fragment here) two times faster than Wilhelmj, and way more precisely too.
From this perspective, Paganini doesn’t seem completely unique. Yet during his life, Heinrich Ernst, Ole Bull, Karol Lipinski were matched to Paganini. And it's worth mentioning, the verdict of the public was not always in favour of Paganini. As well as not always and not everywhere, Paganini had a full house.
Well, why does it makes sense to discuss these issues today?
Not in order to push Paganini off his pedestal, and not for being proud of our present level of perfection - super stability, ultra speed and super precision - which, more likely, surpass those of Paganini.
The genius of Paganini had revealed itself in a bit of different things – in discovery of the new sound abilities of the instrument, in invention of the startling means of virtuosity, in creation the style of expression which moved the listeners in unprecedented way, in the art of improvisation (he had never been noticed playing the same cadenza twice etc.), in composition, in the mastery of imitation, in building the new kind of orchestra relevant to the upcoming era, and so on.
The last in this list comes exactly what is crucially important for today – technical perfection as the ability to execute 50-100 thousands of notes of the concert or competition program without any single blot. It’s hard to imagine such an intention ever crossed the mind of Paganini.
Nice conclusion for the delicate situation classical music finds itself nowadays.
Photo: painting of Niccolo Paganini by Daniel Maclise,1831