Violin concerto no. 4 in D minor

I. Allegro maestoso II. Adagio flebile con sentimento III. Rondo galante. Andantino gaio


In the 19th century, the itinerant instrumental virtuosi were the musical stars of the time. They toured the world and enraptured audiences with their breathtaking techniques. We find accounts of virtuosi for virtually every instrument, but perhaps pride of place goes to the Italian violinist Niccolň Paganini (1782-1840). Besides his instrumental technique he was possessed with a personal charisma that allowed him to dominate his audiences whatever their sophistication. A revealing example is sober poet Heinrich Heiner who thus recalled his encounter with Paganini: “Finally a dark figure appeared on the stage who, so it appeared, had already traversed hell. This was Paganini in black (…) There was some horrific stiffness in the angularity of his body and at the same time, some crazed animalism, so that when he bowed, a strange laughter broke out; but his face, which in the blinding illumination seemed even more corpse like, embodied some entreaty, some mad abasement, so that ghastly compassion replaced our laughter.” His appearance must surely have contributed greatly to the legend that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the violin. His cadaverous exterior was actually the result of serious health problems, including chronic inflammation of the jaw bone that resulted in him loosing all his teeth.


Paganini was paranoid lest imitators discover his trade secrets and he jealously guarded his manuscripts (he always carries his scores with him, and only distributed them among the orchestra directly before the performance). During his lifetime, he published only a couple of chamber compositions and his 24 Caprices (op. 1). His first two violin concertos were only published in 1851, following his death. The remaining four concertos were published twenty years after that.


The Violin Concerto no. 4 in D minor, in common with its predecessors, runs the full gamut of Paganini's technical procedures. He writes harmonics, double stops, pizzicato (with left hand as well), and a number of refined bowing techniques. Broad melodies played on the bottom string and passage work extending across the instrument's entire range also abound. The listener has ample sense that Paganini wrote this bravura work for his own fingers.