#25 The Paganini of guitar

The guitar in the picture: early romantic guitar (Paris around 1830) by Jean-Nicolas Grobert (1794-1869). Instrument top shows signatures of Paganini and Berlioz. The guitar was loaned to Paganini by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1838 and later given by Vuillaume to Berlioz, who later donated it to the Musée du Conservatoire de musique in 1866. Today the guitar is displayed at the Museum Cité de la Musique in Paris.

– from Wikipedia

I played this Fantasy afterwards for Guillieu of the Paris Conservatory and the first flute soloist of the Grand Opera, who said to me: “Is it possible that you have never had any lessons in composition or guitar playing!”

“Never,” said I.

“In this case.” he declared “you must have some rare musical ‘bump,’ and if you continue at the same rate you will some day become a Paganini of the guitar.”

The above is taken from the The Memoirs of Makaroff, written by the 19th century Russian guitar enthusiast, Nicolai Petrovich Makaroff (1810-1890), of his encounters of many classical guitarists. His story of having the potential to be “a Paganini of the guitar” is a bit… sad – Paganini was so highly esteemed, such that guitarists would be proud and worthy when they became a “Paganini of the guitar”. The guitar was such a lowly instrument in the 19th century (and maybe now?) that its worth had to be defined by another instrument.

To be honest, I am not really upset when a guitarist is labelled as a “Paganini”. All guitarists being called “the Paganini of Guitar” really deserved it. What I found funny is the number of guitarists that were assigned such honor: Mauro Giuliani, Trinidad Francisco Huerta y Caturla, Luigi, Legnani, Giulio Regondi, Antonio Jiménez Manjón, and Pasquale Taraffo. Agustin Barrios called himself “the Paganini of the guitar from the jungles of Paraguay“. There might be more. I just got lazy with the internet search. Everyone needed a marketing claim, and it doesn’t matter that everyone used the same one. It just had to be a good one.

Quite a few discussions on the internet actually mentioned Paganini was the real Paganini of guitar, as he was a fine guitarist himself and the guitar was the constant companion in all his travels. I remember checking out the complete works for solo guitar of Paganini from the Sibley Music Library and playing through the three volumes. I love these pieces – sonatas, ghiribizzi, and a various assortment of pieces. All of them are short, with a few arrangements of opera tunes.

From the intro section of the Complete Works for Solo Guitar: The 43 Ghiribizzis (“whims” or “fancies”) are delightful miniatures in the mould of childrens’ literature… in another letter (January 7, 1824) he writes: “The guitar Ghiribizzi were composed for a little girl in Naples, I did not want to compose but more to scribble; but some of the themes are not unappealing and to pass the time, if you have a copy, you would not do badly to show them to Sig. Botto’s charming daughter”.

(More info on these pieces here)

Paganini’s solo guitar works are very enjoyable. The compositions are quite “straight forward” – they seem easy to play. But the way Pavel Steidl played these “simple” pieces completely changed my world – the way he phrased, the subtlty and drama he portrayed, and all the added ornaments. Maybe he should be called the Paganini of guitar, as he unveiled to me how Paganini conceived his guitar music?

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