The virtuosos

by Thomas Siemens

The virtuosos

by Thomas Siemens

“He is a virtuoso in the kitchen”. We may have heard something like that or similar when someone’s special skills as a cook have been highlighted. We are familiar with the term “virtuoso”. But where does it actually come from? The word comes from the Latin “virtuos” which means “proficiency” or “virtue”. A virtuoso is someone who can do something particularly well or at a high level. Virtuoso is therefore something that is particularly complicated or impressive.

Every musical instrument has had and still has virtuosos, and at almost all times there have been instrumentalists who could be described as such, instrumentalists who were known for their outstanding skills on their instrument.

Nevertheless, the 19th century can be particularly described as the age of virtuosos. Here the perfect conditions were in place for a blow musician to flourish who was intoxicated by the difficulty of his art. One of the conditions was that musicians increasingly played for the bourgeoisie rather than for the nobility. In the service of the nobility, their role often consisted of playing background music for high society. Therefore, they were not allowed to be too much in the foreground or over the top. For the bourgeoisie, the musicians were freelancers, giving concerts for them. Since there was no longer a permanent employment relationship, their income was then dependent on whether they could impress the audience. Also, technical advances in instrument making made it possible to go beyond what was previously thought possible on the instrument.

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Some names from this period have remained relatively strong in popular memory and are still familiar to many people today. One thinks here, for example, of Niccolò Paganini or Franz Liszt. Although they did not become as famous as these greats, the guitar also has its virtuosos from this period. Let us take a look at the names we come across.

One of the first and most important “real” virtuosos for the guitar was the Italian Mauro Giuliani. He lived from 1771 to 1829 and was one of the first to make a name for himself, especially through his technical skills. Giuliani spent most of his artistic career in Vienna. Here he also had personal contact with Ludwig van Beethoven. In keeping with Vienna, Giuliani’s compositional style bears a strong resemblance to other Viennese virtuosos such as Ignaz Moscheles and Carl Czerny. His works are filled with fast octave and sixth runs and, virtuoso chordal decompositions and cadenza-like incisions. His 6 Rossinians are particularly well known. These are large-scale fantasies that use themes from Rossini operas. He thus contributed to the general “Rossini fever” of his time.

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Like Giuliani, Luigi Legnani was Italian and another great guitarist. He was born in 1790 and lived until 1877. Compared to Giuliani, he is much less known and less present in concert life today, although quite a few of his works have survived. One reason for this may be that many of his works present the performer with truly enormous technical challenges. It is quite possible that many of his works are simply too difficult even for today’s guitarists. Ironically, only two of his works have established themselves in today’s repertoire. One is his 36 Capriccen op. 20, which, although technically impressive in parts, are more of a practice piece than a concert work. The other work is his Fantasia Op. 19. This work is considered technically demanding today, but Legnani himself gave it the subtitle “brillante et facile”, i.e. “brilliant and simple”. His assessment of the difficulty of the Fantasy op. 19 may therefore differ from that of today’s guitarists. In his time, Luigi Legnani was a well-known and respected name. He was also acquainted with Paganini and held him in high esteem.

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Like Giuliani, Luigi Legnani was Italian and another great guitarist. He was born in 1790 and lived until 1877. Compared to Giuliani, he is much less known and less present in concert life today, although quite a few of his works have survived. One reason for this may be that many of his works present the performer with truly enormous technical challenges. It is quite possible that many of his works are simply too difficult even for today’s guitarists. Ironically, only two of his works have established themselves in today’s repertoire. One is his 36 Capriccen op. 20, which, although technically impressive in parts, are more of a practice piece than a concert work. The last name we want to take a look at is Giulio Regondi. He lived from 1832 to 1872 and is perhaps the only guitarist from the “age of virtuosos” who fits the stereotype of the child prodigy. He was made to practise for hours on end by his father as a child, so that he gave his first performances at the age of 5. At the age of 7, he performed together with Niccolo Paganini and Franz Liszt. In keeping with the stereotype of the child prodigy, he died relatively young at the age of 49. Not many works by Giulio Regondi have survived. But those he left behind are characterised by the highest musical quality and enormous technical difficulty. One example is the “Introductione et caprice Op. 23”. While Giuliani’s music is still very close to Viennese classical music and Legnani’s is very close to Italian opera, Regondi’s music is romantic in the fullest sense. His works correspond most closely to what Liszt and Chopin created for the piano.

Although there are certainly other guitarists who could be mentioned in this context, Mauro Giuliani, Luigi Legnani and Giulio Regondi are perhaps the greatest guitar virtuosos. Their music is still able to make the musicians despair and the audience marvel, and thus enriches the repertoire. His work is his Fantasy Op. 19. This work is considered technically demanding today, but is subtitled “brillante et facile”, i.e. “brilliant and simple”, by Legnani himself. His assessment of the difficulty of the Fantasy op. 19 may therefore differ from that of today’s guitarists. In his time, Luigi Legnani was a well-known and respected name. He was also acquainted with Paganini and held him in high esteem.

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