Next month, the Houston Symphony features two remarkable guest artists in some of the repertoire’s most staggeringly difficult works. On January 9, 11, and 12, Augustin Hadelich plays Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 as part of Paganini + “Pines of Rome,” and on January 30 and February 1 and 2, pianist Kirill Gerstein plays two virtuoso pieces by Liszt as part of our Beethoven 7 program. Learn how these composers revolutionized music as our guest artists share their experiences with these breathtaking works.
One of the undeniable thrills of live music is witnessing incredible feats of virtuoso skill. Anyone who has ever picked out a tune on a piano or guitar knows how difficult it is to play even simple music well; when the world’s best soloists dazzle the ears with flawlessly executed fingerwork that seems to defy the laws of physics and anatomy, a palpable electricity runs through the hall. Such displays have been a feature of musical performance since time immemorial, but 200 years ago two revolutionary composers set the modern standards of virtuoso technique that continue to challenge musicians and delight audiences: Paganini and Liszt.
The Devil Went Down to Genoa
Today, mastery of Paganini’s fiendish music is a necessity for all violin soloists, and the composer’s technical fireworks are sure to impress in the hands of Augustin Hadelich, one of the leading violinists on the world’s stages today.
“I grew up in Italy, so I’ve always felt a particularly strong connection to Paganini’s music,” Hadelich explained. “I love the lyrical, singing themes that sound like they’re straight out of Italian opera.” Born the son of a Genoese dock worker, Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) displayed remarkable musical talent from a young age. He went from one violin teacher to another, mastering what they had to teach him until he outstripped them all, and he began to write music for the violin that was so difficult no one else could play it. In the 1820s he began touring internationally, astonishing his audiences with violin playing that seemed supernatural—even demonic—to some.
“Nicolò Paganini was the world’s first rock star,” Hadelich noted. “Wherever he went, outlandish rumors were already spreading. Was it true that he murdered the lover of his wife? Did he really learn to play in jail on an instrument with only one string? Had he really sold his soul to the devil? Paganini never told these stories himself; he had others spread his legend, the wilder the better. He would arrive at his concerts in a black carriage, dressed in all black, a tall, thin, mysterious figure. He practiced secretly so that no one could copy his techniques.”
All of Paganini’s famous technical feats are on full display in his Violin Concerto No. 1, which Hadelich will play with the Houston Symphony. “There is a lot of virtuoso entertainment here,” he said. “Difficult double-stop runs of all kinds, harmonics (a high-pitched way of playing that sounds like whistling) the ‘ricochet’ bow technique in the last movement, which involves throwing the bow on the string and having it rebound on its own, kind of like bouncing a ball. In one of the most feared moments in the violin repertoire the violinist even plays harmonics in double stops!”
Beneath all the virtuoso pyrotechnics, Paganini’s music is also exceptionally well-crafted. Rossini once declared that if Paganini had chosen to write opera instead of violin music, he would have “knocked out all of us.” Hadelich remarked, “While the virtuoso writing is memorable and a lot of fun, the reason why I keep coming back to Paganini and have endured so many long practice sessions is the beauty of his music!”
What Paganini did for the violin, Franz Liszt did for the piano. “Without exaggeration, everything in modern piano writing―starting with the 19th century piano technique and beyond―was either invented by Liszt or was an elaboration of a seed planted in his works,” explained world-renowned pianist Kirill Gerstein. “The pianistic textures of Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, and others all grow from the seeds of Liszt’s piano writing. We are all branches and leaves of Liszt’s tree.”
Like Paganini, Liszt (1811–1886) displayed extraordinary talent as a child. He made his Vienna concert debut at 11, and is reported to have impressed Beethoven with his playing. It was only after witnessing a performance by Paganini in Paris in 1832, however, that he determined to revolutionize piano music by becoming the greatest pianist of his age.
In a virtuoso feat of his own, Gerstein will perform not one, but two of Liszt’s most challenging works for orchestra: his Piano Concerto No. 1 and Totentanz (Dance of Death). While Paganini always denied the rumors that dogged him throughout his life, Liszt seems to have embraced the demonic element of virtuoso performance. Totentanz in particular seems to have been design to frighten and delight Liszt’s contemporaries much in the way scary movies do today. The piece is based on the Dies irae, a famous medieval chant from the traditional Catholic mass for the dead.
“The Dies Irae is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche,” Gerstein explained. “Numerous compositions quote it, but we might encounter it in movie scores as well. Liszt writes a brilliant set of variations on this chant. Nobody did the demonic and macabre the way Liszt could.” If the devilish character of the piece was meant to frighten listeners, the solo part has certainly struck fear into the hearts of many a pianist with its seemingly death-defying passagework.
But Liszt was more than a flamboyant showman: his music was also strikingly innovative, as his First Piano Concerto demonstrates. Unconventionally, the concerto melds the separate movements of a traditional concerto into one, and imaginatively transforms its opening melody in innumerable guises. “Bartok admired the structural inventiveness of this piece,” Gerstein said. “Liszt combines the showy virtuosity, theatrical effects, and original musical experimentation.” Aware of his concerto’s originality, Liszt famously sang the concerto’s main theme to the words “Das versteht ihr alle nicht, haha!”—“No one will understand this, haha!” Today, however, the piece is an audience favorite for its stirring melodies and, of course, its astonishing virtuosity.