Paganini’s Daemon – A Most Enduring Legend. A film by Christopher Nupen.
With Gidon Kremer, John Williams, Chorus of Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana, and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Lawrence Foster
Format 16:9, Stereo, Subtitles D, E, F, I, J

Sufficient documentary evidence exists for Paganini to become the subject of numerous biographies. Some are skimpy, whilst others are bulked out with lithographic portraits, programmes, bills of account, letters and all the impedimenta of an itinerant, indeed ultimately superstar instrumentalist’s life. Some of these are transferable to the medium of a documentary portrait on film. In fact Christopher Nupen makes good use of the ‘lithographic’ aspect of his subject, providing us with numerous portraits, and pictures of a man who died before he could be captured by photograph. Indeed the famous faked picture of him could almost serve as an emblem of Nupen’s search for the ‘legend’ of Paganini – though fortunately Nupen doesn’t perpetuate it in his film.

The thread that runs through the 79 minute programme – which includes a bonus segment devoted to Gidon Kremer discussing and playing Paganini, taken from another DVD – is both biographical and musical. A near-chronological survey is accompanied by filmed extracts of a significant number of Paganini’s music. Kremer is the interpreter with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana directed by an unseen Lawrence Foster. His effacement is doubtless deliberate, because for music in the earlier portion of the footage Kremer’s face too is never seen, only his athletic, spindly fingers on the fingerboard. The compositions for violin and guitar, amongst Paganini’s most directly affecting – he began as a guitarist – feature John Williams, but we only see his fingers as well. This concentration on mechanics, on the digital, is surely a deliberate ploy not to personalise these scenes; to preserve a degree of association between viewer and the subject via a preservation of Paganinian mystique. If you look at John Williams, you no longer see Paganini. Whether you’d actually prefer to see Williams; whether indeed it’s perfectly possible to see Williams and also ‘see’ Paganini is a question to which Nupen has presumably answered in the negative. I think you can. I think it’s actually a bit weird not to see Williams and Kremer playing their instruments.

Numerous quotations from contemporaries and listeners illuminate the programme; Liszt (a huge fan), Schumann (likewise), Goethe (bullish, anti), and many others who range from idolaters to criers of ‘charlatan’. We learn that he kept his audiences waiting – perhaps the first in a long line of musical headline acts so to do - and probably deliberately broke strings as he played to demonstrate increasingly dazzling feats, not least when he was reduced to just the one. But for all his love of money, and status, and women, all of which were characteristically excessive, he also loved his son, Achille, and these passages are some of the most affecting in his whole biography; such as the time when the boy interpreted his father’s syphilis-ravaged voice for the listening Berlioz – to whom Paganini then gave the vast sum of 20,000 Francs.

Paganini was the first executant superstar. He doubled ticket prices for his London tour – and then suffered when the English public stayed away. But he still made at least £10,000 in London in one season alone. His income was astronomical. His conceit was fabulous. His manner was ostentatious and offhand. The more prestigious the milieu the more the cock crowed, and the more often he was forced to flit. He was an accumulator and a bolter. He performed, took his winnings, committed indiscretions, and was forced to leave. His existence was gilded but provisional, and when the end came, via financial near-disaster in Paris, and physical decline, he had long since ceased to play his beloved violin, and his vocal chords had become useless. To confirm the provisionalness not only of his life but of his mortal remains, every so often his body was dug up and moved. Finally, as the twentieth century dawned, his corpse finally came to rest. Indeed as he was finally re-buried, in 1892, new giants, very different ones, had risen; Sarasate the brilliant, Joachim the dour.

Naturally the traditional arc of such a life is mirrored here. Birth into poverty, relentless practice, a semi-tyrannical father, an escape into luxury, and the comforts of debauchery, followed by over-ambition, poor judgement, crippling court-cases, physical disintegration, and death. But with Paganini everything was taken to excess. This documentary presents this quality as his ‘daemon’, possibly correctly. It’s a handsome film, doubtless partial, but well worth watching.

Jonathan Woolf

A handsome film, doubtless partial, but well worth watching.