Virtuosic Music in the 19th & 20th Century

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In the mid-1800s, classical music began to take a drastic turn towards modernism. From the 1830s onward, a new kind of player began to emerge, and would raise the bar of technique forever: virtuosos. Composers and performers such as F. Chopin, N. Paganini, and H. Vieuxtemps raised the standard of playing to another level by pushing the limits of what was possible for musicians and their hands. Previously, much of the repertoire was written for a specific player or group of musicians, so the composer knew how easy or difficult a piece should be. In the 1810s, a pianist was to premiere one of Beethoven’s piano concertos and he supposedly asked the composer to change some of the notes because they were too hard for him to play. Astounded at the pianist’s nerve, naturally, Beethoven refused. Today, it is rare to find a performer who asks the composer to make their piece easier — unless the two are collaborating on a project and it is for artistic purposes. Otherwise, players honor the intentions of the creator, and, in simple terms, “suck it up.” This mentality was born from the original virtuosos who wrote the music the way they wanted and left the hard job to the performers. Here are two of the most famous.

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was one of the most famous virtuosos of the 19th century and arguably one of the best of all time. His 24 Caprices for solo violin shake the nerves of every violinist even today, due to their immense difficulty and flamboyant style. Some of his pieces are “showy” simply for the sake of creating a splash, and Paganini certainly achieved this effect when he performed. In the 1820s and 30s, Paganini toured Europe solo and dazzled audiences everywhere. Rumors began to fly that his brilliant technique was a result of him selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for supernatural playing abilities. The virtuoso loved these stories about himself and he played along by acting the part. Paganini wore all black, grew his hair out, swayed when he played, and conveniently lost all of his teeth. Aside from his appearance as a possessed man, Paganini’s startling talents won him a legacy of admiration and reverence for creating many common string instrument techniques used today.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was a virtuosic pianist, composer, and “celebrity.” He was renowned for his extraordinary technique and pianistic abilities, and like Paganini, he flaunted his image. Before Beatlemania came Lisztomania, when women flocked to hear Liszt’s incredible performances, swooning, crying, and practically going into a frenzy. Hans Christian Andersen saw Liszt perform in 1840 and compared his technique to divine abilities: “The whole of Liszt’s exterior and movements reveal one of those persons we remark for their peculiarities alone; the Divine hand has placed a mark on them which makes them observable among thousands.” Liszt did consider himself a celebrity, mingling with the nobility and highly cultured. He had little regard for those who interrupted his recitals: once, Tsar Nicholas I was late to one of Liszt’s performances and began to talk. Liszt stopped playing the concert, and when Nicholas asked why the music stopped, Liszt replied, “Music herself should be silent when Nicholas speaks.” Liszt also wrote an extensive list of repertoire for piano, including the famed ‘La Campanella’ and ‘Liebestraume,’ and is considered one of the greatest romantic composers.

Paganini and Liszt both left their distinguishable marks on classical music, and even set the bar for many virtuosos today. Additionally, both composers advanced the boundaries of what humans, and more specifically, classical musicians are able to accomplish physically by developing such incredible and expressive musical techniques.