19th Century Virtuosity

by britneymason27

This past week, our brief discussion of the rise of virtuoso performers, such as Paganini, reminded me of how we view modern-day performers so I decided to research the virtuoso movement in more detail. The image of the virtuoso developed extensively over time, and even at the height of the Romantic virtuoso’s success in the 19th century, musical virtuosity was received in different, even conflicting ways. The performances and performers themselves became more and more spectacular. The virtuosos came to resemble our modern-day celebrity in a way; rumors were spread about them (Paganini was rumored to have acquired his skill as a violinist while incarcerated for four years after “strangling his wife in a fit of violent rage,” which was completely fictitious), and there was an even greater fascination with their appearance and social fame.

The virtuoso style of play was a very ornate and often-ostentatious style of playing. Despite the highly developed abilities of most virtuosi, critics often found fault with this style of playing, as there was a distinct move away from the technical focus of music. Despite these often-harsh reviews, the virtuoso musicians’ fame did not waver in the eye of the public, as they still packed concert houses to hear these performers play. The excessive and spectacular use of loud dynamics was one of the most common techniques used by virtuosi to add grandeur to their performances.

I’ve posted a link below of Alexander Rybak playing the violin in a virtuoso performance of “ La Ronde des Lutins” by Antonio Bazzini. The speed at which he plays and the way he toys with the audience, characterized exactly what I imagined when I think of a virtuoso performer. What do you think?

Abraham Veinus describes the virtuoso as “one of the essential and corroding institutions in music history.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Do you think the rise of the virtuoso musician in the 19th century had a positive or negative affect, if any at all, on the way we view performers and musicians today? Are there any modern day examples of virtuoso performers that come to mind?