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Virtuosos create their own opportunities
Here's a question that might make it into the pub quizzes at some point: who was the first musician to employ an agent? The clue to the answer is that it was probably someone for whom an agent was necessary in order to manage the vast numbers of bookings he was receiving; someone who was a bit of a showman, and for whom audiences would flock to concert halls to listen to. And hence it must have been someone would had quite a bit of technical skill and was a bit of a virtuoso. After all, you couldn't be a great showman without having the technical ability to back it up, or else audiences would see right through you.
The answer to the above question - the first musician to employ and agent - is the violinist Nicolo Paganini. While he was technically gifted, his off-stage persona had much to do with his popularity as with his talent. Some parts of his audiences believed that his extraordinary talent was the result of a pact between him and the devil. Paganini himself had a hint of the demonic about him too; as a young child he had mutilated his left hand so that he could accommodate a greater spread between his fingers. (In a way this foreshadows the pianist Robert Schumann who would resort to a mechanical device to strengthen the fourth finger on his left hand, but with the unfortunate result of wrecking his performing career.)
The interest in Paganini's off-stage personality was enhanced by his looks - but not in the manner we would expect. Unlike the pianist Franz Liszt, who was famous for his good looks, many portraits of Paganini present him in the form of a gaunt, long-haired figure with a sort of piercing look, almost slightly demented. In some portraits we can see a thin, wiry figure with pointed feet, with eyes staring at you as if he were somehow manifesting some evil scheme in his mind as he held your attention playing his violin. It would not be difficult to imagine Paganini in the role of the Pied Piper, or with a pitchfork in his hand.
Like many virtuosos of the time, Paganini developed a technical supremacy at his instrument quickly and the existent works of the time were not difficult enough to provide a challenge - or wow the audiences. Hence his secondary occupation as a composer was founded out of necessity in order to provide himself the opportunity to showcase a range of skills. Some of these skills were those of lyrical ability - to play long beautiful tunes that would enthrall - while others were slightly demonstrative. It is said that Paganini's favourite trick was to break three strings on his violin, one at a time, and still keep playing the music. Audiences would go "Uhh!" as one string after another broke, just to see how he would continue playing as the odds increased.
In order for him to present himself as a showman, Paganini's pieces were rarely profound and did not explore the full depth of ideas. Some composers derided him for what they perceived as superficiality in his music, somewhat like musical fireworks with no lasting quality, but others admired him for how he extended the technical range of violin playing. He found admirers in Chopin and Liszt, who brought his lyrical and technical influence into their own works. Liszt, like Paganini, had to create his own style of music in order to demonstrate the technique he had attained; to demonstrate that he could play faster octaves than anyone else at the time, or hit the keys harder. (Before the metal-framed pianos were invented, Liszt used to break his wooden-framed ones quite frequently from the force of hitting the keys.)
Liszt, like Paganini, possessed an off-stage character that equally drew audiences as his on-stage skills. His lifespan nearly encompassed the period of time between the Classical composer Joseph Haydn and the 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky. While you can find out more about Liszt here, he - like Paganini, forms the answer to yet another trivia question of "Who invented the piano recital?" And modern artistes who travel to different venues to perform gigs may also find it interesting to know that the career of a travelling virtuoso in the Classical music world can also be traced back to Liszt.
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