Archive | February, 2014

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The Ceaseless:

Posted on 05 February 2014 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

Both the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems seem to revolve around the essence of motion. The heart never ceases to beat, and our muscles and bones are always occupied with some kind of movement, no matter how minor. Indeed, for the most part we live our lives without even noticing such constant involvement of these two body systems in our physiology. This brings to mind a classical composer whose fate was to be continuously on the move. And he embraced his destiny so willingly that he likely did not even realize his peril as it slowly destroyed him. Meet the greatest—and perhaps the maddest—violinist to ever walk the face of the earth: Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840).

Born in Italy, Paganini exhibited musical talent at an early age, to the delight of his father (and his own dismay). Detecting the financial potential in the child, the old man put the poor boy to gruesome slavery—long hours of forced violin practice each day. At this young phase of his life, Paganini’s health already became so scarred that he would never recover fully. Unfortunately, this abusive father left upon Paganini an even more destructive influence: crazed, relentless ambition. After moving away from home, the young artist entered a phase in his life when he practised fifteen hours every day. He was obsessed with fame and money, and to achieve such a never-ending goal it was not unusual for him to perform hundreds of concerts in a time span of three to four months. He paid for it immensely in the form of health, but even so could not seem to stop. Ailments that plagued the violinist include pulmonary hemorrhage and the eventual loss of his voice.

Paganini’s technique on the violin was legendary, and with it he influenced an entire generation of young composers. Notable was his ability to execute unbelievably rapid staccatos, double stops, and alternating bowed and plucked notes. But the most exhilarating tour de force of them all was the stunt of breaking three out of the four strings on the violin and finishing a concert on just one string. In time rumours began to spread that he was associated with the Devil, and that during his youth he made a pact with the Devil to grant him an infinite amount of skill on the instrument. As Paganini advanced in reputation, he also became more arrogant and his public behaviour more disgusting. Once he was invited to play at a Mass, but ended up interrupting the ceremony with a whole twenty eight-minute concerto. Not so surprisingly, criticisms exploded wherever he went, but these appeared to only strengthen his drive. Nevertheless, tales of his alliance with the Devil, which he once encouraged eagerly in promotion of his business, eventually turned into a despised nightmare as his opponents increased in hostility.

Paganini’s sexual lust was also ceaseless. Perhaps the most infamous event in this area was one in his juvenile days when he impregnated a girl, but did not want the child. So he made her drunk and, catching her in a half-conscious state, had her swallow an unknown potion which turned out to be an abortifacient. When she was finally aware of what had happened, she had her father press charges against the young violinist, who was arrested and imprisoned for eight days. This gave birth to the legend that Paganini once committed murder and spent a considerable amount of time behind the bars. As his violin gradually rotted away in jail, Paganini had to devise new, “fancy” techniques to maintain its pure, rich sound, and that this was the origin of his skill. Such story haunted Paganini for the remainder of his life.

While Paganini the musician was unstoppable, the music itself was similarly in perpetual motion in terms of both technique and character. Notoriously difficult passages abound in the violin compositions of Paganini, mirroring the composer’s own daring habits of performance. We are tormented by frequent mood swings. Paganini’s music is very bipolar; in one passage all hope is lost, and we head dejectedly towards certain death, then all of a sudden we start dancing wildly as if we have just won the lottery. Such style of music can, of course, also work against us. It is not uncommon for example, as we listen to Paganini, to lose ourselves in the most beautiful melody ever conceived, imagining that we were reposing beside a celestial fountain, then suddenly…a gang of goblins, ogres, and other hideous beasts appearing out of nowhere and ravaging our dwelling place until it is unrecognizable.

One of Paganini’s pieces that best exemplify his hectic musical style is the virtuosic warhorse Moto Perpetuo. The name literally means “perpetual motion”, and that is exactly what it is: a four-minute demonstration of absolute frenzy by the violin. At first hearing the solo-accompaniment structure appears simple, consisting of a ceaseless rampage of rapid violin notes to a series of chords on the piano. The piano accompaniment opens with only two chords—all the time the solo violin has to prepare before it jumps in. But the piece is not just a technical exercise or even a roller coaster ride. It is a rich tapestry of ever-changing colours and personalities, a powerful vehicle of artistic expression. And not to be forgotten, it shows the world what the violin can really do if its will is bent toward that purpose.


Moto Perpetuo

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