How did Paganini compose music?

Edited: March 16, 2023, 9:22 PM · How did Paganini compose music for the violin? Did he use the violin exclusively or a combination of instruments, such as the violin, viola, and guitar? I imagine he probably used the guitar to map out an harmonic structure and used the violin or voice to aid in composing melodies. I wonder if his compositional method was somewhat similar to that of his friend, Hector Berlioz.

Replies (15)

March 16, 2023, 8:45 PM · I have no answer to your question, but imagining Berlioz and Paganini hanging out together is just bewildering. I know they were only about 20 years apart, but they seem compositionally so different.
March 16, 2023, 8:48 PM · Yes, they were quite different! I forget to mention the viola in my original post but I also wonder if he used that instrument to compose music.

March 16, 2023, 10:43 PM · Paganini's composition heritage can be traced the Neapolitan partimento tradition. See Robert Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) and

Berlioz was much more interested in the gothic, timbre, technologies of the orchestra. On Berlioz and Paganini, see Maiko Kawabata, “The Concerto That Wasn’t: Paganini, Urhan and Harold in Italy,” Nineteenth-Century Music Review 1, no. 1 (June 2004): 67–114,

Edited: March 17, 2023, 6:45 AM · I'd say the answer is "not very well" in many respects (mastery of form, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration). I expect somewhere in his writings Berlioz explained his compositional methods although I couldn't quote a reference. But I'm sure he and Paganini were never "friends" although evidently there was much mutual respect.
Edited: March 17, 2023, 3:25 AM · Of one thing I'm certain: he didn't compose in the way Lydia Tár is depicted working in the eponymous film, where she spends ages in front of what looks like a long line of slurred B flats, and muses over a single interval.
March 17, 2023, 6:13 AM · He was a brilliant guitarist and actually preffered guitar to violin., If you mean his caprices, he put them together as exercises for himself, most of which he couldnt play at all at first.
March 17, 2023, 9:47 AM · He was trained in composition. That much is obvious from how by-the-book much of his harmony is.

Paganini was an improviser. A lot of the good bits were probably recycled licks and phrases, with his knowledge of theory and convention filling in the gaps.

March 17, 2023, 11:41 AM · To Cotton's point, as a shrewd and skilled performer, maybe he was working stuff out in his performances and writing the stuff down that worked. I imagine that the Caprices were a distillation and formalization of his process, because I don't believe he performed them.

He must have known what he was doing in a formal sense.

March 17, 2023, 12:20 PM · Well, I don't know about Berlioz or Paganini's history in terms of the guitar, but I think I can make a case for the aesthetic inspiration of his style of writing.

You may recall that he heard much Italian opera when he was very young. It seems to me that Italian opera was (at least in part) his aesthetic muse. Just listen, for example, to the opening of the 2nd Concerto. It sounds like dramatic orchestral introduction to an opera. You can almost imagine a curtain opening. And when the violin comes in, it's set up like a singer with an opening aria.

In fact, I think all of his concerto sound in many ways like instrumentally inspired operatic arias, with the solo violin as a kind of incredibly superior voice.

Just a thought.

March 17, 2023, 12:26 PM · He composed some really wonderful pieces for violin and guitar (Centone de Sonata and some others). For a violinist, these pieces are relatively accessible and do not require virtuoso pyrotechnics.

I am not aware of anything in particular that he composed for viola, although it was undoubtedly present in his few orchestral works.

March 17, 2023, 1:02 PM · I ended my earlier post too soon. It turns out he did write a piece for viola and orchestra (Sonata per la Grand Viola, MS 70) and a one movement Polacca for violin, viola and guitar. Anyhow, these are not well-known works, at least from my vantage point.
March 17, 2023, 1:46 PM · The "grand viola" was a 5-string instrument, though plenty of violists with only four strings play it (just as many cellists play the 6th Bach Suite, which is for a 5-string viola pomposa.)
March 17, 2023, 10:46 PM · I was looking at his short E minor Sonata, which has double stops played at the fingerboard and left hand pizzicato. Double stops are very violin friendly:) This would be fun piece to play with a guitarist.

March 18, 2023, 3:13 PM · How did Beethoven decompose?
March 19, 2023, 11:52 AM · When Beethoven was young, he was a pre-composer.
And when Bach wrote a certain cantata, he was a coffee-composer.

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