I was about five or six years old—a typical age to begin such a pursuit—when my parents decided that I ought to learn to play the violin. Thanks to their fairly substantial collection of records, I had started to show interest in music even earlier than that, and by the time I began my lessons I had already acquired several favorite pieces. Before falling asleep at night, I would often demand to hear Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, for example, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or the first violin concerto of Max Bruch. For some odd reason, the first movement of that Bruch concerto conjured up in my boyish imagination fantasies of goblins and demons, and by the time the second movement began, I would have nodded off.
Our small southern Illinois town in the late 1970s could offer only three or four violin teachers, and my parents took me to an elderly man named John Wharton, a retired professor of music who had taught at the local university. I think I entered Mr. Wharton’s tutelage a bit too late for him to teach me anything of substance. Perhaps it was his advanced age that made him far too lenient with me, for he tolerated, like a benevolent grandfather, my many intonation problems, my imprecise bowing, and my inability to grasp the concept of pulse. The slightest effort on my part was enough to win his approval. I went from one piece of music to the next—from Dvorák’s “Humoresque” to Bach’s A minor concerto—without ever really learning them, without ever acquiring a technique, and it took a second teacher, a few years later, to undo all the bad habits I had picked up.
Still, my years with Mr. Wharton were hardly a waste. Though my lessons took place in the front room of the modest, one-story house he shared with his wife, he would often take my father and me to the back of the house afterward, to his study, where he kept his stereo system. He took great delight in playing various recordings for us, illustrating the techniques of different violinists. Occasionally he would make tape recordings for me to take home; those cassettes introduced me for the first time to Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, Schubert’s sonatas for violin and piano, and many other pieces I still adore.
One day, Mr. Wharton gave me two tapes of the 24 caprices of Niccolò Paganini, played by the American violinist Michael Rabin, a prodigious talent who died at the age of 35. Rabin performed Paganini better, perhaps, than anyone else of his or any other time, and the 1958 recording that Mr. Wharton gave me contained violin playing of a kind I hadn’t heard before. The caprices are dazzling works; they require the violinist’s fingers to bend and flex, traveling up and down the fingerboard at terrifying speeds, while playing two, three, or even four notes at once. And that’s just the left hand. The right hand must make the bow assume so many roles, playing the part of the brilliant acrobat one moment, and the sweetest bel canto singer the next. It’s no wonder that in Paganini’s day his admirers and detractors, astonished not only that he could write such technically daring music but also that he could play it himself, associated the Genoese master with the devil.
What I heard on those tapes, as a boy of seven or eight, was nothing short of bewildering. I felt an instant attraction to this unfamiliar music; the experience of listening to it was so unlike that of listening to Bach. I know now that to play Bach well demands a level of skill, intelligence, and sophistication that few people possess. But it was Paganini that sounded more difficult to my ears in those early days. Rabin didn’t just play the caprices; he battered them, bruised them, tamed them, championed them, without incurring so much as a scratch upon himself. I loved those pieces precisely because they inhabited a realm beyond what I thought physically possible on the violin. Even later, long after I had left Mr. Wharton and had become an adequate musician, I could play the works of many a composer (Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Wieniawski, Bartók) but Paganini remained off-limits, something best left to a lucky few. Theirs was a craggy, sunlit summit that I knew I could never climb; I could only gaze up at those who did, admiring their accomplishments with jealousy and amazement.
Although I would always view Paganini’s caprices (as well as his sonatas, concertos, and variations) with awe, I slowly began to outgrow them. Musical thrills ceased to move me. I wanted more depth in the works I listened to. So I found myself drawn instead to Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler; my Paganini collection lay mostly untouched. I came to accept the general critical opinion about Paganini: that his pieces may indeed represent the pinnacle of virtuosity, but they simply aren’t great art; that they lack all those qualities—emotional depth and sincerity, for example—that distinguish showmanship from music. I have felt that way for almost 20 years. Recently, however, I’ve been wondering if I have been mistaken, not only about Paganini but about the many pleasures that virtuoso music can provide.
Classical-music critics, perhaps even more than musicians themselves, tend to disdain virtuosity. A particularly disparaging kind of criticism appears in concert reviews, often when the musician is a precocious child prodigy who can play with outlandish ease music by Paganini or Liszt, Rachmaninoff or Henri Vieuxtemps. The reviewer might call the musician “a great virtuoso” but will qualify that praise by saying that he or she “is not yet an artist.” The phrase “empty virtuosity” appears so many times in reviews that it has become a cliché. The implication is that virtuosity only matters when put in the service of something deeper—that is, art. The critic invariably sees virtuosity as something crude, never mind that a jaw-dropping performance might elicit uninhibited shouts of “bravo” from the audience, and encore after encore until the house lights finally go on. By suggesting that a highly developed technique, one that allows a musician to play the most difficult pieces, has no value of its own suggests that virtuosity is expressionless, without feeling, insincere, cold.
According to the contemporary composer Luciano Berio, whose masterly Sequenzas are a series of technically (and intellectually) difficult pieces for several different solo instruments, the very word “virtuosity . . . can give rise to scornful sniggers, and may even conjure up the image of an elegant and rather diaphanous creature with agile fingers and an empty head.” But how did this image come about?
The word virtuoso derives from the late Latin virtuosus, meaning virtuous, and the Latin virtus, meaning excellence. As early as 1620, the word referred to a scholar or a connoisseur, and by 1743, it was being used to describe a highly skilled musician. The 19th century was the golden age of the virtuoso: the violinist or pianist who traveled from one European town to the next, dazzling audiences with heroic displays of skill. Paganini (1782–1840) was the greatest of them all, launching his concert career at the age of 27, playing his own works, which were filled with every difficulty imaginable: incredible leaps from note to note; lengthy passages involving double- or triple-stops (the playing of two- or three-note chords at once); runs involving octaves and the palm-stretching interval called the tenth; rapid left-hand pizzicato (that is, plucking the strings with the left hand rather than the right—a terribly difficult thing to do); artificial harmonics (the whistling effect produced when one finger is placed on a string while a second hovers just barely above that same string, the fleshy fingertip making the slightest contact with gut or steel). Whether or not these effects can be seen as tricks, Paganini was viewed in his day as a genuine artist, not merely as a trickster.
Listen to his concertos and you will hear bombast, but you will also hear music full of emotion and yearning, music that sings or aches, music that assumes many different guises: of the gypsy, the seductress, the villain, the hero. It is music that is fully, characteristically Romantic.
The Romantic age—which encompassed both Paganini and Franz Liszt (1811–1886), the Hungarian pianist who was so impressed with Paganini’s virtuosity that he sought to write music for his own instrument that similarly pushed the bounds of technique—made a cult of the individual, the hero, the passionate genius, the solitary figure who yearns for but cannot attain what he seeks. From its beginnings, Romantic art carried a whiff of the fantastic, with connotations of an imaginary, ideal world that stood in opposition to reality (and to the classical age that preceded it). Paganini indulged in the myth of his own personality (that of a strange, secretive, even deranged musician who sold his soul to the devil); his music was no less mysterious. The composer Giacomo Meyerbeer wrote, “Paganini begins where our reason stops.” Indeed, the caprices and concertos tantalize precisely because they seem to inhabit the realm of the remote and unattainable. But it is the beauty of his music—the lyrical slow movement of his first concerto, for example, a piece more full of pathos and melody than any Rossini aria—that distinguishes Paganini as a towering figure of the Romantic movement. Walter Pater’s definition of Romanticism—“the addition of strangeness to beauty”—might as well have been written with Paganini in mind. Despite the gimmicks and flash, the unbelievable dexterity of his fingers, the Romantics saw in the gaunt, pale, Italian master an enchanting artist of substance.
I have been to some memorable concerts and recitals—a haunting performance by the Cleveland Orchestra of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a magnificent Beethoven’s Ninth conducted by Zubin Mehta at Tanglewood, an incandescent outdoor performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder that I heard one summer at Bard College—but the ones I remember best (an embarrassing admission) are the virtuoso performances, the ones that nearly made me gasp.
A few years ago, I attended a recital by the pianist Evgeny Kissin. Much of his program was devoted to Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-Tableaux, and though he played those pieces with color and depth of feeling, what I remember most was his speed, power, and dexterity, his complete command of the virtuosic idiom. It was the piece Kissin played last, however, that I will never forget: Mili Balakirev’s notorious fantasy “Islamey,” a piece some people claim to be among the most—if not the most—difficult in a pianist’s repertory. Critics often dismiss “Islamey” as mere virtuosic fluff. Yet here was as thrilling an encounter with music as I had ever had. Kissin tore through the octaves and scales, the blistering runs and rapid finger work, but he played poetically, too, in the dreamlike middle section that is suffused with an eastern aroma (again, beauty and strangeness mixed together). The coda was like a thundercloud of notes, and as Kissin’s hands rocked back and forth, up and down the keyboard in a whir of barely controlled madness, I felt my own pulse increase, my heartbeat pick up, anticipating that final, treacherous run down the piano. Kissin tossed it off with power and panache, and when he played the final note, the audience went into a frenzy.
I am not saying that if given the choice between Balakirev and Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, I would always prefer Balakirev; most times I wouldn’t. Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and Schubert inhabit a pantheon that does not include Balakirev, Paganini, or Liszt. But for me, nothing provides a guiltier pleasure than the Paganini caprices, or Liszt’s first “Mephisto Waltz,” or the many virtuosic piano transcriptions of the orchestral classics, such as Liszt’s version of the Tannhäuser overture (the live account by Jorge Bolet has me on my feet every time) or Schulz-Euler’s daring rendition of “The Blue Danube” waltz.
As I write this, I am listening to Michael Rabin playing Paganini. Mr. Wharton’s tapes are long gone; I now own the caprices on compact disc. I have been listening to that recording several nights a week now for about two weeks straight, and I have yet to tire of it as I might have in the past. I am rediscovering its pleasures, I suppose. No other works are filled with more thrilling effects: the violin imitating the flute and the horn, the nearly impossible plunges from high note to low, the crisp up-bow staccato bowing, the crazy intervals that require the palm to open and close like an accordion to get the notes in tune, the rapid octave runs, the chords so high up on the fingerboard that you have to be a contortionist to play them. These aren’t just tricks. Their very remoteness and strangeness elicit a genuine emotional response in the way they bewilder and beguile. I realize now that there are times when I simply want to be thrilled when listening to music, whether in the concert hall or at home. And what thrills me most is a performance that verges on the impossible.
The virtues of virtuosic music began to lose their appeal in the second half of the 20th century. At one time a violinist could fill an entire program with flashy numbers and bonbons; the personality of the artist mattered most, even more than what the composer had written on the page. The idea was to play to the crowd, to make people swoon and cheer, even sweat. But by the 1960s, such recitals were out of fashion. Seriousness was the order of the day; fidelity to a musical score would later become sacred, and a time soon came when violinists preferred a program of three heavy sonatas to a series of virtuoso pieces. Today, the great violinists—the Gil Shahams and the Maxim Vengerovs—do indeed release CDs of showpieces. The critics might praise the discs, but they will most likely treat the offerings as lightweight, inconsequential, something to fill the gap between recordings of Beethoven and Brahms. Ours is a more serious musical culture because of this attitude, but it is a bit poorer, too. What I am beginning to realize is that virtuosity is not something distanced from or subservient to art, but a legitimate expression of the musical impulse in and of itself.
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