Paganini – Sonata for Grand Viola and Orchestra

by Max Derrickson

Niccoló Paganini     (Born in Genoa,Italy in 1782; died in Nice, 1840)

Sonata for Grand Viola and Orchestra
(in 1 movement, 3 sections)
I. Introduzione: Larghetto; Recitative a piacere
II. Cantabile – Andante sostenuto
III. Tema con Variazioni (Theme, 3 Variations and Coda)


[. . .]
Such can be the ignominy that the noble viola must sometimes suffer – seemingly forever in the shadows of its diva-like sister, the violin – but not always.  It has had its devotees, including Mozart, Brahms and Dvorák, himself a violist.  And indeed, one of the greatest violin virtuosos of all time, the famous Paganini, was a sincere admirer of the viola’s beautiful voice and nimbleness.

Paganini had been playing the viola and composing for it for several decades before he became seduced by the idea of it as a solo instrument around 1832.  Specifically, Paganini owned a particularly large and sonorous viola made by the famous Stradivari clan (referred to as a Grand Viola), and wanted to show off both the instrument and his techniques with it.  He then heard a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, was utterly enchanted by it, and commissioned the composer to write a viola concerto.  Reluctant at first – after all, Berlioz was being asked by the greatest musician on the face of the planet to compose a concerto for an instrument Berlioz was not intimately familiar with – Berlioz eventually began his majestic Harold in Italy, a sort of symphonic tone poem led by a viola soloist.  Paganini, however, was unimpressed after hearing the first movement and abandoned Berlioz, but not before the composer sagely suggested that Paganini write his own.  The result, in 1834, was Paganini’s own Sonata for Grand Viola and Orchestra.

[. . .]
Paganini’s Sonata, though, does not need a large instrument to show off its many charms – charms which leave the listener wondering why solo viola pieces aren’t programmed more often today.

Paganini’s Sonata is primarily a vehicle for viola heroics and does not disappoint: the viola is allowed to woo us with its rich timbre and sultry low strings, to dazzle us with its surprising athleticism while pirouetting with those famous Paganini tricks of the “ricochet” bowing, the left handed pizzicato,
[. . .]

The Sonata greets us with a rather stern introduction,
[. . .]
The Cantabile section arrives which begins as a magical “duet” for the viola speaking in solo – this is a duet played by the sophisticated soloist alone in all double stops –
[. . .]