The Cooper

Published in The Strad Magazine Vol. 93 No. 1110  Oct. 1982


Our knowledge of the day-to-day activities of past musical and literary figures is generally remote.  Small shafts of light are revealed by diligent searching.  The Lord Chamberlain’s records on 3 September 1674 reveal an order to pay £24 to two musicians of His Majesty for two violins bought for them for His Majesty’s Service in the Chapel Royal.  In the bill, signed by Henry Purcell, no mention is made of the makers of these instruments.  Henry Purcell it would appear was something of a Jack-of-all-trades, undertaking tasks from the maintenance of wind and string instruments to engaging and the supervision of trade and craftsmen.  His role as one of the greatest early composers is not given mention.  In April 1662 John Banister, one of the best English violinists of his day is recorded as having purchased two Cremonese violins for the King’s service; again no mention of the makers of these instruments.  How tantalising all this is.  By Paganini’s time not much had changed.  It is mainly through letters that we glean most about Paganini’s other activities, his dealing in instruments and general trading.  He was a shrewd businessman with an obsession to provide sufficient for his retirement and his family’s future.  His procuring in 1833 of a Barony that would pass to his son Achilles was part of the overall scheme.

            Paganini’s lifetime dealings in instruments and bows is further evidence of his obsession for wealth, although, like all connoisseurs, his impeccable eye for quality stands out in the inventory of the instruments in his estate after he died.  His knowledge of instruments and the trade must have been considerable, but little to substantiate this has come down to us except this inventory, which included seven Stradivarius’ (three violins, two violas and two cellos), three del Gesu violins and seven others, all the finest of Cremonese and Brescian schools.

            The maestro’s friends in the making and dealing profession were considerable and far flung, from Nikolaus Savicki, a Pole working in Vienna, to Joannes Valenzano in Trieste.  On the one hand he praises Savicki for his skill as a maker and for fitting a new fingerboard to his own violin in a manner beyond reproach.  On the other, he complains that Valenzano makes a lot of money; having charged Signor Samengo 45 florins just to change the nut on his Strad.  A letter from Paganini to his friend Luigi Germi, written from Milan in 1823, gives a refreshing insight into the everyday goings on in the Mantegazza workshop.  Paganini was friend enough to be allowed the other side of the counter.  An extract from this letter dated 18 June l823 contains the following:1

Your Guarneri had a superb reception in Milan, and Mantegazza is taking extraordinary pains with it.  There’s a piece in the belly that’s badly made of the poorest wood: now this has been changed and I hope it will be an astonishing success.  Your Amati is not an Amati but a Cappa of Saluzzo.  Pugnani changed all Cappa’s labels to Amati and you won’t find Cappa violins with his name.  But yours is a Cappa and one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Mantegazza has never taken such a violin apart.  Your violins and viola, as well as my cello, have been examined by the celebrated, and only intelligent, connoisseur Signor Zonabuoni (sic) and his judgement is sacred.  Your viola is a Gasparo da Salo.  My cello is very beautiful and is a Stradivari made by his assistant Bergonzi - in short, a Strad out of his workshop. 

This letter reflects a great pride in ownership and the satisfaction of having his own views confirmed by the “experts”.   A natural sense of excitement is also evident in passing the good news to Germi, his close friend and advocate.  It is more than conjecture to assume Paganini would also have known the Guadagnini family, as J. B. Guadagnini was a close associate of Francesco Mantegazza.  Guadagnini’s work was by now receiving its due acclaim, his early work from the Piancenza period being on a par with Stradivari himself.  It is certain that Paganini’s eye for quality and business would not having missed this.  In the same way that he ordered a quantity of bows made to his own specification from Mantegazza to be sent to his friend Germi in Genoa for sale there.  Because of illness, Paganini’s finances were at a low ebb so that a little dealing came in useful.  This was before his grand tours abroad which eventually brought him so much wealth.  In 1834 he is found praising the steel bows of J. B. Vuillaume and highly recommending them, stating that they are infinitely preferable and far superior to wooden ones. (As far as is known he does not bear this out by using one himself).

            Paganini in the role of a dealer pure and simple is shown in purchases he made in 1840, the year he died: two Stradivarius’, one costing 95 Louis which he said he would let Count de Cessole have for 4,500 Fr. Although if he took it to Paris he could demand 5,000 Fr. This last remark has more than a familiar ring about it. Even at the end of his life he was contemplating becoming a dealer and spies in most countries with instructions to purchase only instruments in very good condition and “for God’s sake not to talk to him of repaired violins with visible cracks, but to negotiate for good violins only that haven’t given at the bridge”.

            It was from the Gagliano family business that Paganini purchased his strings: it is recorded that he always requested them to be of the thinnest gauge, with a postscript asking that they be thinner if possible.  This obsession for thin strings was for a specific purpose.  Only by using such strings could scordatura become a working proposition.  It is well known that he was accustomed to using this device on many occasions. 

            While everything of importance has been recorded in many biographies, some good and some mischievous, it is well to reflect on the day to day happenings in the life of such an enigmatic personality as Nicolo Paganini.  It is to be hoped this short homily will make a small contribution in that direction.

1  Geraldine de Courcy: Paganini the Genoese (Norman, Oklahoma, 1957/1977)