The Cult of the Virtuoso

by Todd Richardson "MerlinRavenSong" )0(

The Romantic Area

The Romantic area embodied the spirit of personal expression and individuality. It was a time where the emphasis was on personal expression, where as the classical era focused on reason and balance. The French Revolution saw a rise in the individual and the rise of the middle class as a social and economic force. With this came the development of the concert hall in which the public would choose its own attendance and purchase tickets individually. There was a great priority and interest on the virtuoso being an artist and a hero. The artist as an artistic hero represented personal triumph. This gave rise to the cult of the virtuoso. The two artists who embodied the hero aspect during the Romantic period were Niccolo Paganini and Franz Liszt. Their music has inspired a whole new generation of young guitarists who are directly or indirectly influenced by what they did in the past. Paganini

Paganini lived from 1782 to 1840. He was an Italian violinist whose virtuosity made him a legend. Paganini raised the level of violin technique by his use of harmonics and perfected use of double and triple stops. He also employed the use of a scordatura, which was his unusual and diverse tuning for the violin. He was first recognized as a child prodigy in 1793 in his hometown of Genoa. He began his musical training on the mandolin and two years later the violin. He claimed that the result of his bad health was due to the fact that his father beat him and withheld food from him so that he would practice more, and that was why he was so good.

From very early on, Paganini’s approach to the violin was totally different than his peers. Clear evidence of his unique approach to the violin can be seen in his twenty-four caprices for solo violin. The caprices required a technical mastery that only few have achieved. In 1801 Paganini left Genoa and went to Lucca. He played a pontifical mass at the local theater. The Abbé Jacobo Chelini disapproved of Paganini’s playing. During his performance Paganini imitated the sounds of birds, flutes, trombones, and even a horn. This aroused laughter in the Church. The Abbé felt this performance was better suited for the concert hall and not the church. Even though the Abbé disapproved of his playing, this performance, along with others, led Paganini to be appointed as the Leader of the Republic of Lucca’s National Orchestra.

After leaving Lucca, Paganini made his debut at La Scala. His performance gave him fame in Italy. One of the things that violinists noticed about Paganini was the fact that he devised his own unique fingerings, which gave light to the fact that even though he had formal training, he was also self-taught. The other thing that stood out about his playing was his ability to play difficult compositions on only one string while he plucked the bass accompaniment on the other strings.

When Paganini reached the age of forty-five, he began to give concerts outside of Italy. He toured Vienna, but when he arrived at Prague he became ill, which was probably the result of him contracting syphilis at an early age. He had to undergo an operation where doctors had to remove his jawbone and all his teeth. When his health improved he played in Poland and Leipzig. Chopin heard him in Warsaw in 1829. His performance inspired Chopin to write a piece called “Souvenir de Paganini.”

When Robert Schumann heard Paganini at Heidelberg, he decided to dedicate his life to music rather than law. Schumann later in his career transcribed Paganini’s caprices to piano. He even named a section of “Carnaval” after him. On March 9, Paganini made his Paris debut. The audience was made up the who’s who of the French aristocratic society. The audience also included some of the most important nineteenth-century musicians (Rossini, Donizetti, Liszt, Auber, Haleve, and Maria Malibran; and Heine, deMusset, George Sand, Jules Janin, to name a few).

Paganini played 112 concerts in the British Isles from 1831 to 1832 with great success. Paganini’s health once again began to decline, and after he played France and England in 1832, he stopped performing for six months. Paganini was able to gather up enough strength to attend Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz wrote in his memoirs that, “He [Paganini] stopped me in the corridor in order to shake my hand, overwhelmed me with ardent praises which set fire to my heart and my head.”

From 1836 to early 1837, he gave a few violin concerts in south France. Afterwards, he returned to Paris where he had invested money in Casino Paganini. Unfortunately, that venue failed the following year. Paganini died on May 27th at age fifty-seven.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution also came about during the Romantic period. The assembly line made it possible to mass-produce products. This was important because it improved the economy and allowed for more goods. This led to the improvements in brass and woodwind instruments. This also led to an expansion in orchestration. What also took place was that pianos were being produced in larger numbers. During this time iron frames were put in pianos. Pianos were made to become stronger and more durable instruments. They were suitable for large performance spaces in concert halls. These pianos also still retained the total sound capability suitable for private performances. As a result, the piano became a status symbol for economic well being. A lot of the sponsorship that was reserved to the aristocracy now resurfaced in the private homes of the upper middle class. The salon setting for music presentation for private concerts was developed in the nineteenth century. There was a lot of musical training going on and people assumed music was a part of a young person’s education. This was certainly true of Liszt.


Liszt was born in Hungary. His father Adam Liszt gave Liszt his first piano lessons. By the time he was nine, he impressed the local barons so much that they supported his musical development for six years. When Liszt went to Vienna he was able to meet Beethoven, study with Schubert, and study composition with Salieri. He also studied with Beethoven’s pupil, Carl Czerny. When Liszt’s father took him to Paris to study at their conservatoire, Cherubini, the director, refused to admit him because he was a foreigner. Liszt had to continue his studies privately. When Liszt went to go see Paganini in concert, it inspired him to practice more so that he could do for the piano what Paganini did for the violin.

As Liszt got older, he returned to Paris. He had great success there. He was now known as the greatest pianist of his day. His European tour was also successful. By the time he reached his mid-thirties, Liszt was a wealthy man. Liszt accepted a position as the conductor of the Weimar Court Operas. Liszt wanted to support the finest and the most talented musicians around him. He also wanted to revise the great musical masterpieces of the past. On his list was the music of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” Schumann’s “Genoveva,” and Schubert’s “Alfonso un Estrella.” Liszt was also able to devote a good deal of his time at Weimar to twelve of his symphonic poems. These were one movement orchestral works based on a program of a non-musical subject. Liszt also wrote his “Faust” and “Dante” symphonies during that time. His first piano concerto and a large amount of original music for piano were also written at Weimar. These included songs, choral works, and piano transcriptions.

Wagner and Liszt called their music “the music of the future.” Unfortunately, the music was a little too far ahead of its time and the Weimar court soon lost interest in Liszt. Liszt decided to leave but viewed the experience as not a totally negative one. Music historians view this Weimar project as having a positive effect on Wagner, Berlioz, and Liszt also because it represented a change in the musical landscape. Liszt wanted to be known as part of the musical avant-garde. Most of the respected musicians had great respect for him.

Mendelssohn wrote after seeing him live: “Liszt’s whole performance is as unpremeditated, as wild and impetuous, as you would expect of a genius.”

Clara Schumann wrote about his theatrics: “Liszt with one chord broke three hammers and four strings as well.” Robert Schumann wrote: “He is really too extraordinary. His playing of the Novelletten, parts of the Fantasie, and the Sonata [all by Schumann] moved me strangely.”

With praise came criticism. Clara Schumann wrote after Liszt played at the Schumann household: “He played so shamefully badly that I was quite ashamed to have had to remain and not to have been able to leave the room.”

For the most part Liszt was praised by musicians who understood his genius. Berlioz wrote: “It would really be wasting words to say that Liszt ¼ played it in a grandiose, refined, poetic yet always faithful way. He received a blast of applause and orchestral fanfares that must have been audible even outside the hall.”

Liszt died in Bayreuth shortly after he attended performances of Parsifal and Tristan at the Bayreuth Festival. He died in July 1886 at the age of seventy-five. Along with being known for his symphonic poems and aligning himself to the new avant-garde of his day, he was also known for other things. He often used national melodies native of his homeland, Hungary. He also pushed the limits of piano playing with his transcendental etudes, and he transcribed Paganini’s twenty-four caprices.

Promotional Gimmicks

Liszt and Paganini both were associated with somehow being in league with the devil, and they both used this as a promotional gimmick. Paganini was said to travel to concerts in a black carriage driven by black horses. He wore black during his concerts, and his pale appearance, long black hair, and strange facial features gave him somewhat of a demonic appearance. Liszt challenged the moral fiber of society with his highly controversial love affairs An example of this is his affair with Countess Marie Agout, who abandoned her husband and even her child to run off to Switzerland with Liszt. His “Faust” and “Dante” symphonies dealt with the themes which had to do with heaven and hell. When Liszt was fifty-four, he took minor orders in the Catholic Church. When Gregorovius saw Liszt in Rome, he yelled out, “Mephistopheles disguised as an Abbé.” It was during this time Liszt had his most unusual love affair with Olga Janina. This affair ended when she aimed a loaded revolver at him during a heated argument. She was known for the fact that her pet leopards had killed the director of the Kiev Conservatory. She was also known for having horsewhipped and abandoned her husband the day of their marriage.

Liszt and Paganini’s Influence Today

One of today’s best examples of someone who’s been influenced by the great virtuosos of the past is the Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen. Like many of today’s guitarists, his first encounter was seeing Jimi Hendrix on television. This is what sparked his lifelong love affair with the instrument. On his eighth birthday he received a copy of Deep Purple’s “Fireball.” When he learned how to play in the style of Hendrix and Richie Blackmore (Deep Purple), he began to wonder what was next. Yngwie said that, “At thirteen, I saw the violinist, Gideon Kremer, on Swedish television and was truly amazed at what I heard. He played Niccolo Paganini’s 24 Caprices, which I immediately bought at the record store.” This inspired him to imitate what he did on guitar with what Paganini did on violin. Paganini’s long sustaining notes, vibratos, cascading descending and ascending lines, and arpeggios became his signature sound.

Yngwie led the new wave of guitarists who were not only influenced by the Eric Claptons and Eddie Van Halens of their day but by cult of the virtuoso which occurred during the Romantic period. There were even schools dedicated to promoting these guitarists. The most famous is the Guitar Institute of Technology. It was a place where guitar players could study their music during the day and play with their peers at the local nightclub at night. Also skilled guitarists like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Paul Gilbert wrote numerous articles for Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines, pushing the boundaries of the instrument. Just as Liszt pushed the boundaries of the piano with his transcendental etudes and Chopin with his revolutionary etudes, they did the same. Instructional videos were now put on the market by these young players. The exercises in them even gave conventional classical guitar players a run for their money.

The musical legacy left behind by Liszt and Paganini is still influencing young musicians today. There has been a shift from guitar players using more than just the pentatonic scales of the blues. There is now a move toward more linear lines, arpeggios, and violin and piano inspired music of the past. This movement will always be felt whenever a young kid dresses in black and tries to play the difficult solos of Yngwie Malmsteen or Richie Blackmore. These kids are not just imitating their guitar idols; they’re conquering the ghosts of Paganini and Liszt.


Classic and Romantic Music, A Comprehensive Survey. Herter Norton, 1970.

Sachs, Harvey. Liszt. Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Sachs, Harvey. Virtuoso, the Life and Art of Niccolo Paganini. Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Walser, R. Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Wesleyan University Press.

Yngwie Discusses “Concerto Suite.”