Ricci’s research on Paganini’s technique

Generations of violinists have tried to discover what it was that made Paganini so legendary. In this article from 2014, the late great Ruggiero Ricci shared his thoughts with Strad readers

Was Paganini’s renowned virtuosity the result of a carefully guarded secret, as he himself claimed, or did he acquire his technique in the conventional manner, through years of long hours of diligent practice? According to his friend Julius Schottky, as quoted in a Paganini biography by Leslie Sheppard and Herbert Axelrod, Paganini insisted that he had discovered a secret that gave its possessor mastery over the violin. Schottky writes:

Frequently, in my presence, Paganini has hinted that when he tired of his public career, he may one day be induced to communicate to the world a secret, the existence of which is little suspected by musical conservatories, a secret of such wonderful efficacy that by means of it a pupil may aspire to a degree of perfection unattainable by one who, pursuing the ordinary method, should devote ten years to practise the greater part of each day.

Although his contemporaries may have regarded his claim with some scepticism, Paganini was insistent. According to Schottky, Paganini would invariably repeat in a tone of sincerity: ‘I swear to you that what I say is the simple truth… you have the authority to publish my promise in the most unequivocal terms.’

Although the violin has been called ‘the instrument of the devil’, either because of its power to move, or perhaps because of its potential for technical pyrotechnics, it is not the instrument that is the problem but rather our failure to analyse its set-up. Tuned in perfect fifths and governed by the laws of physics with approximately 25 diminishing semitones per string, the violin seems an ideal candidate for systematisation of its technique. However, to date there is no organised playing method that takes advantage of this uniformity.

Our goal in left-hand technique should be to acquire it using the least possible practice time – that is, to develop a shortcut. Did Paganini’s secret refer to a new system or study method that he developed? This seems probable in view of the clues he left behind. He said: ‘When my system will be known, artists will commence to study the nature of the violin far more thoroughly, for it is an instrument a hundred times richer than is generally supposed. My discovery is not due to sheer accident, but the result of thorough research. One day, they will come to my system of studying.’

This quote suggests that by ‘secret’ Paganini meant a system, which could only have meant a shortcut. Can one acquire the technique necessary to play his caprices with less practice time? Is there a shortcut to acquiring a virtuoso technique? How did I stop this nagging question in my mind? For years, I experimented. I practised with gloves on; fixing the instrument against the wall to make it stable; lying on the floor; playing with one ear plugged; playing with the other ear plugged; playing in closets; sitting down.

It was only when I was 83 and couldn’t hold the violin any more due to shoulder and back pain that I first took off my chin rest. It was then that I found the answer. To my amazement, I had to change my whole left-hand technique. To discover Paganini’s secret, this is where I should have started.

Although Paganini never revealed his secret, he made two claims which seem to have been overlooked. He said: ‘There is only one position, and there is only one scale.’ I have carefully analysed these two important ideas and, in doing so, have begun to unravel the nature of the solution.

To discover more we must first understand the system by which Paganini played. In the era before chin rests were used, the violin was held by the left hand while the head was free to move. The hand was kept against the ribs of the violin and the fingers were extended backwards or forwards, both in front of and behind the thumb. From various accounts we know that this is how Paganini played. He would keep his wrist against the ribs and pivot his hand forwards and backwards in an arc. It is this old and forgotten system of playing within which Paganini developed his technique.

Opusalb by The Strad

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