Violinists 'singing': Paganini, operatic voices, and virtuosity

Kawabata, M. (2007) Violinists 'singing': Paganini, operatic voices, and virtuosity. Ad Parnassum: A Journal of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Instrumental Music, 5 (9) pp. 7-39. ISSN 1722-3954 (print) 2421-6933 (online)


Violinists have always sought to imitate the expressiveness of singing. For the modern violinist, to play with the natural phrasing suggested by the breath is a basic aim while interpreting the masterworks. In the early 19th century, however, when it was still standard practice for violinists to perform their own works and to improvise, 'singing' carried very different connotations. Through an examination of compositions, performance practices, and reviews, the ways in which Paganini and his contemporaries thought about the vocal quality of the violin are explored. Performers conceptualized tone production, character, and the bow hand with close analogies to singing. Critics compared violinists with stars of the operatic stage; the violin's voice was almost universally regarded as feminine, tying in with popular legends that violins were 'ensouled' with the spirits of women. Violinists strove to 'sing' because it enabled deep expression, a lasting counterbalance to ephemeral virtuosity: this runs counter to the commonly held view that virtuosi were interested in pyrotechnics alone. Simultaneously, certain singers felt drawn, curiously, to aspire to violinistic virtuosity by treating their voices like mechanical instruments; if a singer could do all that a violinist could do—while the violinist could not better the singer—then why not just have singing? Precisely this question was dramatized in the competition scene from the opera Le carnaval de Venise by Ambroise Thomas. The voice carries the day, consigning the violin to second place. Yet there were rare exceptions to this rule—as when violin-singing was thought to meet and even exceed the expressivity of singing.

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