Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), his life and his legends, drives the story of Ann Abelson’s book, PAGANINI’S FIRE. She was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for her writing, and it was only after her death that her son, Lenny Cavallaro, discovered the Paganini manuscript. Cavallaro took on the role of editor and is responsible for bringing Paganini’s powerful story of fame and glory, of triumph and tragedy and of a secret pact with the devil to life. An accomplished composer, musician and teacher in his own right, Cavallaro was a top prizewinner in the J.S. Bach International Competition for Pianists. THIRSTY was fortunate to spend some time with Lenny Cavallaro at this home in Ipswich, Massachusetts for this interview.
THIRSTY: Was Paganini really the great violinist history portrays?
Lenny Cavallaro: It is impossible for us to determine the level of technical skill of any of the great 19th-century performers. We can draw conclusions, based in part on the music they wrote and in part on commentary by their contemporaries. It is clear that Paganini stood head and shoulders above all other violinists of his day. He could never have acquired such an enormous following or commanded such outrageous fees if he were just “slightly” better, or “the first of equals.” So, too, we may assume the Liszt was far better than any pianist of his time. Alas, Paganini was dead long before any sort of recording was available, and Liszt died a year or two before Edison was able to record even as much as three minutes of music.
THIRSTY: How would Paganini rank against today’s violinists?
Lenny Cavallaro: We do know that the overall level of performance has improved immensely over the years. Orchestras today are immeasurably superior to those that accompanied Paganini. Violinists, in particular, are far better trained and have the advantage of such repertoire as the Paganini Caprices to study. However, at the time Paganini wrote his most difficult works, he was the only violinist on the planet who could perform them.
Was he greater than Jascha Heifetz or Itzhak Perlman? We’re off in another Dempsey vs. Marciano or Louis vs. Ali debate, for which there is no logical basis for comparison. Suffice it to say, he was legendary, and in many ways, the greatest of all times.
THIRSTY: Why has Paganini’s reputation withstood the test of time?
Lenny Cavallaro: I think the true measure of Paganini’s greatness can be determined by the many innovations he introduced and popularized - the use of harmonics, the dazzling arrays of double stops, the excruciatingly difficult passages featuring arpeggios of unprecedented lengths and the virtuosic use of even so mundane a practice as pizzicato (plucked strings). Before Paganini burst onto the scene, these notions were unheard of, as indeed was the idea of the virtuoso himself. He clearly inspired Liszt and Chopin, who in turn greatly increased the possibilities for the piano.
THIRSTY: What inspired Paganini?
Lenny Cavallaro: I am frequently asked about scenes in PAGANINI’S FIRE in which music comes to Paganini at night, as though dictated by the succubus (Satan) assuming the appearance of Eleonra Quilici. Whether his music was inspired by his satanic mistress or not, it may very well have come to him during sleep. Indeed, the phenomenon is not unknown. Schubert sometimes went to bed with his spectacles on so that he would be able to dash right to the manuscript paper when awakened from his “dream.” Schumann’s violin concerto was, presumably, dictated by the spirits of Mendelssohn and Schubert, who visited him at night. Although a composer of infinitely more modest talents, I, too, have “heard” music in my dreams. Indeed, the courante of my first partita was completely “dictated” to me in this fashion.
THIRSTY: Paganini’s sexual exploits with women were legendary, but his relationships quite shallow. Why do you think that was the case?
Lenny Cavallaro: The chapter on Baroness Helena von Dobeneck in PAGANINI’S FIRE certainly does little to rehabilitate our hero’s character and good name. Helena appears to have loved him to madness. She deserted her husband and followed, or really stalked, Paganini across Europe until she was eventually confined to an asylum. Paganini appears to have enjoyed her for a while, but once again proved incapable of loving a woman.
The concert “groupies” and even the occasional prostitute provided him with sufficient outlet. Perhaps there were emotional “scars” following the break-up with Antonia Bianchi who bore him a son. What we do know is that the affair with Helena, brief though it may have been, was a meaningful relationship, even to the cold-hearted fiddler. It was also his last. Thereafter, it seems Paganini faded into the sexual sunset.
*Sonata #1 in D minor for Violin and Klavier (1988), Composed by Lenny Cavallaro, Sarah Darling - Violin, Lenny Cavallaro - Piano.