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Authors: Paul Adam

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BOOK: Paganini's Ghost
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She wasted no time on social courtesies, but said bluntly, “Is Yevgeny there?”

I could hear an undertone of worry in her voice.

“No, why should he be here?” I said.

“You're the only person he knows in Cremona. I thought he might be visiting you again.”

“No, signora, he hasn't been here. Is everything all right?”

“No, it isn't all right.”

The undertone surfaced and there was open anxiety in her voice now.

“He's disappeared. I don't know where he is. Yevgeny has disappeared. Something's happened to him.”

“What do you mean, ‘disappeared'?” I said.

“He's not here. I went out shopping this afternoon, and when I got back, he was gone.”

“What time was this?”

“About half an hour ago.”

“Signora, relax. He's probably just gone for a walk.”

“Yevgeny doesn't go for walks. And if he did, he'd leave me a note.”

“Half an hour isn't long. Have you checked downstairs? Maybe he's in the hotel restaurant or lounge.”

“No, he isn't there; I've looked. He's nowhere in the hotel. Something's wrong, I can tell. Something's very wrong.”

“I'm sure there's nothing to worry about,” I said reassuringly.

“You think so?”

“It's not late. He's a grown man. My guess is he's out sightseeing or something like that. Give it more time; he'll probably be back very soon.”

“And if he's not?”

“Call me again, and we'll decide what to do then.”

“Yes, okay. I'll wait a bit. Thank you. You are very kind.”

She rang off. I put down the receiver and shook my head. Parents will always worry about their children, which is only natural, but sometimes you can be overprotective. Ludmilla really needed to let Yevgeny go a bit. It would do them both good.

I washed up my plate and cup, then pondered what to do next. Sometimes in the evenings I return to my workshop and tidy up a bit, or I sharpen my tools or take care of the routine administration relating to my business—invoices, accounts, that kind of thing. Occasionally, I watch television, though there is seldom much on worth watching. This evening, I didn't feel like any of those activities. I felt like playing my violin.

I went through into the back room and opened my violin case. I cast a critical eye over the instrument inside. When confronted with
excellence in a field of endeavour to which we ourselves aspire, we tend to have two instinctive responses: It inspires us to try even harder to match that excellence, or it dispirits us so much that we throw up our hands in defeat and say, Why bother? Some people are temperamentally more inclined towards one of these responses than the other. I tend towards the first. When I examined
il Cannone
, I was aware that it was a much finer violin than anything I have produced, or will probably produce in the future. But that realisation didn't fill me with despair. The reality of life is that we are all second-rate. Mediocrity is the norm in human existence, which is why when an individual transcends that mediocrity, we stand back and gaze on their achievement with awe. We cannot quite believe that they have done it.

How did Guarneri make such sublime instruments? I don't know. Probably he himself didn't know. He learnt his craft and worked at it for years, of course. But I have also worked at my craft for years, yet my violins are crude wooden boxes compared to Guarneri's. The sad truth is that he had something that I do not, something special, something innate. He was born with the gift, and no matter how hard I work, how hard I dedicate myself to the task of equalling him, I will never succeed. That does not mean I should not try, however. I may not be a Giuseppe Guarneri, but I can certainly be a better Giovanni Battista Castiglione.

The same applies to playing the violin. I had heard Yevgeny Ivanov, and been overwhelmed by his astonishing virtuosity. But it didn't make me despondent; it didn't make me want to give up the instrument myself. It made me want to play better, to strive that little bit harder to improve my own standard. I will never be anything more than a good amateur; I know that. But there is satisfaction and fulfilment to be found in pushing the barriers, in seeing just how far you can take your limited talents.

I attached the shoulder rest to my violin and tightened my bow. I warmed my fingers up with a few scales and arpeggios, then looked round for some music to play. The “Moses Fantasy” was still out on top of the piano. I would not normally attempt a piece by Paganini—the
technical demands are too great for me—but this evening I thought, What the hell. Why not?

I put the music on my stand and studied it. There is a pattern to these great bravura variations on operatic arias that Paganini wrote. The opening few bars generally state the theme in its simplest form; then the variations that follow get progressively harder, utilising double and triple stops, running demi-semiquavers, left-hand pizzicato, and artificial harmonics of quite fiendish difficulty. The piano accompaniments to these dazzling pyrotechnics are always basic in the extreme. I used to attempt a few of them with my wife—who was a far better pianist than I am a violinist—and she found them unbearably dull. The accompaniment to “Le Carnaval de Venise,” for instance, consists of the same sixteen-bar sequence repeated twenty times. The “Moses Fantasy” is similar—a showy, near-impossible violin part, and a piano accompaniment that a moderately dexterous chimpanzee could probably manage.

There is a pattern to the way I play these pieces, too. I start off boldly, giving a rendition of the opening bars that is close to what Paganini actually wrote—the notes are generally in tune and in the right order. But as I get farther into the piece, the accuracy begins to disintegrate. I miss notes, I miss chords, and sometimes I miss whole bars, until what I am playing is only a vague approximation of the music. By bar twenty, I am out of my depth, by bar thirty I am sinking, by bar forty I am drowning, and by bar fifty I have had to be dragged out and given artificial resuscitation.

The “Moses Fantasy” is a particularly sadistic piece of composition, for not only is it devilishly difficult but it all has to be played on just one string of the violin—the lowest string, the G, which is the hardest of all to play on because of the contortions the left hand must go through to get to the notes.

I put my violin under my chin and lifted the bow.

Then I paused, the bow in midair.

I stared at the music on the stand before me. I'd just noticed the small line of text that was printed beneath the title.

Of course.
Of course
. How unforgiveably stupid of me. I couldn't believe I'd forgotten.

I put the violin and bow back down in the case and went to the telephone. It was gone half-past seven, but I knew Guastafeste would still be at the
questura
. I dialled his direct line.

“It's me,” I said when he answered. “The gold box, I think I might know how to open it.”

“You do? How?”


Scordatura
,” I said.

 

Nicolò Paganini was nothing if not a showman. He realised very early on in his career that if he was going to make a mark on the musical world, he needed an image. He wouldn't have used that word, of course, but he would have known that he had to do something to make himself stand out from the crowd. Music then, as now, was an intensely competitive business. Instrumentalists, in particular, found it hard to establish themselves. The voice, certainly in Italy, was king—or, more often, queen, for the female voice had an especial appeal to audiences. The great sopranos of the day commanded huge fees for their appearances, a tradition that continued throughout the nineteenth century and, indeed, still holds sway today. Adelina Patti, the most celebrated vocalist of the late-Victorian era, was once famously engaged to give a recital at the White House, in Washington. When it was pointed out to her that her fee for one evening's entertainment was greater than the annual salary of the U.S. president, she replied pointedly, “Can he sing?”

The singers of Paganini's time had a similarly exalted status. This must have been firmly imprinted on young Nicolò's consciousness when, as a ten-year-old prodigy, he appeared as the supporting act to Teresa Bertinotti and Luigi Marchese, who had come to Genoa to perform a concert. Bertinotti was a famous, and very expensive, soprano, but Marchese was, if anything, even more renowned because he was a castrato. In that final decade of the eighteenth century, castrati were still immensely popular. Handel, Mozart, and Rossini all wrote for that
voice, and audiences seemed to find castrati both musically and sexually fascinating. They were already a dying breed—volunteers to join their dwindling number were understandably thin on the ground—but by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the practice of castration had virtually ceased, though a pocket of resistance was maintained in the Papal States, where at least one castrato still sang in the Sistine Chapel Choir up to the age of the gramophone.

Paganini must have gazed on these two superstar celebrities with awe and perhaps wondered how he was going to emulate them in the field of violin playing. There had been great virtuosi violinists before—men like Corelli and Tartini, whose names have endured more as composers than players—but it was difficult for a young instrumentalist, even one as gifted as Paganini, to make a name for himself.

There was no easy route to the top. There were no national newspapers in Italy—indeed, at that time it wasn't even a nation at all—and there were no radio stations or recording companies to promote an artist. A young player had to travel round from town to town organising his own concerts—hiring the venue, booking the orchestra, organising the publicity, as well as actually getting up on the stage and performing. Attracting an audience required shrewd and effective marketing—the soloist had to sell himself, create a persona that would bring the punters through the doors—and Paganini proved himself an adept self-publicist right from the beginning.

The “Moses Fantasy” was written in 1819, when Paganini was in his late thirties, but many of its key features date from much earlier in his career. It wasn't the first piece he'd composed for the G string alone. Playing on one string had been a speciality of his for many years—one of the ways in which he distinguished himself from his competitors. Violin strings in those days, being made of gut, frequently broke, and they sometimes snapped in the middle of a concert. The highest string—the E—because of its greater tension, was particularly prone to giving way. In such circumstances, most soloists would stop and replace the broken string. Paganini, however, would continue playing on the remaining three strings, going higher and higher on the A string
to produce the notes normally played on the E. If his A string snapped, he kept going on the D; then if that broke, the G. This was such an impressive party piece that Paganini was rumoured to begin his concerts with deliberately frayed strings, or that he even kept a knife concealed about him to cut through a string while he was actually playing. Whether this was true or not it is impossible to say, but Paganini did little to dispel these kinds of stories at any stage in his career. In the short term, this made a kind of perverse professional sense—the rumours added to the controversy that seemed to follow him round like a shadow, boosting audiences for his concerts—but in the longer term, it earned him a reputation for charlatanry.

Another technique he used in many of his compositions was
scordatura
—changing the tuning of the strings on his violin. He wasn't the first musician to do this, but he certainly put it to greater use than any of his contemporaries. His first concerto, for example, was written in E-flat major, but the violin part is in D major, with the strings all tuned up a semitone so the instrument sounds as if it is playing in E flat. This makes the solo part easier to play, but it also adds to the brilliance of the violin, enabling it to stand out better against the orchestral accompaniment. Paganini used the same trick in other compositions, “I Palpiti” and “Le Carnaval de Venise” among them. And he also used it in the “Moses Fantasy.”

“We were trying the wrong notes,” I said to Guastafeste.

He'd driven out from Cremona and was sitting at my kitchen table with a glass of red wine in his hand. He'd brought the engraved gold box with him, which must have breached at least half a dozen official regulations, but he seemed to have a clear conscience. The Italian police, like police forces everywhere, are sticklers for rules when applied to the general population, but they are not nearly so rigorous in applying those same rules to themselves.

“The wrong notes?” he said.

I showed him my copy of the “Moses Fantasy.”

“The first four notes appear to be G, C, D, and E flat,” I said. “That's how they're written. But look up here, under the title.” I pointed
to the line of text—written in German, because this was a Schott edition. “
Die G Saite nach B umstimmen
.”

“Which means?” Guastafeste said.

“Tune the G string up a minor third to a B flat,” I said.

“B flat? It says B.”

“This is German, remember,” I said, then explained to him the mysteries of Teutonic musical notation; how their chromatic scale, for reasons best known to themselves, didn't go A, B flat, B, C, as ours did, but, A, B, H, C.

“The violin part is written in C minor,” I said. “But look here at the piano accompaniment. It's in E-flat minor. So you have to retune your violin so that it sounds in the same key as the piano.”

Guastafeste peered at the music, transposing the first four notes in his head.

“So what we really have is B flat, E flat, F, and G flat.”

“That's right,” I said.

Guastafeste removed the gold box from its plastic evidence bag and placed it in the middle of the table.

BOOK: Paganini's Ghost
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