The Cooper

Published in The Strad Magazine Vol. 93 No. 1110 Oct. l982



While the rest of the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of Paganini’s birth in 1782, we in Winchester are proud to play our part by marking the 150th anniversary of his two appearances in our city on 5 March and 4 September l832.

Contemporary poster announcing Paganini’s recital.

Winchester, the ancient and venerable capital of England until the 11th century, has kept its royal connections.  The marriage of Mary Tudor to King Phillip of Spain in the Cathedral in 1554 illustrates this perfectly. The Hospice of St. John was founded some say 932 AD, but certainly refounded in 1275 by John le Devinishe, by licence from Edward 1, for the relief of sick and lame soldiers, poor pilgrims and wayfaring men. It is the oldest of five such institutions. The main building stands in the Broadway, adjoining the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, and serves not only the 58 or so almshouses, but the whole population one way and another until the recent removal of the Magistrates Courts in l980. During the reign of Elizabeth 1 its functions took in every aspect of Civic and Corporate duties, from caring for the needy to the election of the Mayor. Originally called St. John’s Rooms, it consists of an undercroft with walls over five feet thick which support a more modern structure built in the 18th century. In the 19th century this was redesigned by lowering the floor and adding an extra storey, thus doubling the height from floor to ceiling.  Now we have a glorious and impressive structure with Regency and Georgian decorations 30 feet high and floor space approximately 60 feet by 37 feet. The undercroft houses a superbly equipped restaurant and wine bar. The intention to approach the City Council with a request for the return of the paintings that originally hung there is sensible and important to the whole concept.

The original six large windows are intact.  Outside, using trompe l’oeil, imitation windows have been painted onto recesses that correspond to the actual windows, a pot of paint and a brush, also painted on, add realism.  The view from the Mayor’s Parlour, Abbey house, opposite is impressive.  A red canopy over the doors adds a touch of elegance to the whole.  St. John’s House has been designated a grade one listed building.  Until l939 it had always played a part in the musical activities of the City, with the great cathedral music festivals of the l8th and 19th centuries making full use of it.  By the time Paganini played there in 1832 is was the principal building used for functions, ranging from fashionable balls to serious music, with the two often mixed as in Paganini’s case, his recital preceding a ball.

Paganini’s first appearance in Winchester on 5th March l832 was his last concert of the l831-2 tour; he did not, as some authorities state play in Southampton this time.  He left on the steam packet for La Havre on March 8.  On returning to London from Paris at the end of June, he began a tour of the south of England, taking in Canterbury, Brighton, Southampton, Portsmouth, Chichester and again Winchester on September 4.  This recital is glowingly reported on September 10.   The concert on March 5 reported in the Hampshire Chronicle dated March 12 is of particular interest: not only does it re-create the atmosphere of the period but it goes a long way to explaining Paganini’s popularity and the aura that surrounded him.  The pianist’s problems have changed little over the years - Mr. Long’s experience as Paganini’s accompanist shows his predicament only too well.

The concert by the celebrated violinist Signor Paganini, assisted by a select number of the Band of Gentlemen Amateurs of this city took place at St. John’s House on Monday evening.  The well-known and wonderful talent of this highly gifted artist attracted, as we expected, a numerous and fashionable audience.  His power over the instrument he professes beggars all description.  The solo, entitled “Sonata Sentimentale on the Prayer” in “Pietro l’Eremita” said to be executed on one string (the fourth) must have been heard with admiration by all who could appreciate the “treasure of sweet sounds” elicited from the instrument by this almost supernatural being.  His last performance, “Nel cor Piu”, with variations, seemed to give the most unequivocal delight to the audience, and was rapturously encored.  The Signor, however, was not persuaded, even by applause almost bordering on frenzy to come forward a second time.

            It must truly be said of him, that on earth we shall not look upon his like again, for he certainly is like nothing earthly.

18th century view of St John’s House.

            The singular disadvantage under which Mr. Long, the gentleman who accompanied Signor Paganini, laboured, should be noticed.  Till within three hours of the time fixed for the commencement of the concert he was not in possession of the copies of the accompaniments.  Persons who had seen the MS and who were qualified to express a correct opinion on this subject, know that it required the eyes and judgement of a professor well skilled in reading the autographic compositions of foreign schools, to have done it common justice, even had a much longer period been allowed for preparation.  To such apparent failure, therefore, no want of perseverance, or deficiency in musical knowledge, can be justly imputed; and Mr. L. is entitled to the highest credit, and the thanks of all parties, for his indefatigable exertions in arranging the entertainment of the evening.  Mr. Truss’s quadrille band was in attendance at the close of the concert and dancing was kept up with spirit till an early hour the following morning

            There is no mention of the number attending the concert; we do know, however, that nearly a thousand people were attracted to the two Southampton recitals on August 30 and 31.  There is a clear indication of Paganini’s powers on the concert platform.

            The 150th anniversary of the maestro’s appearance in Winchester is being celebrated with a “Festival of Music”. The ballroom will be exactly as Paganini would have seen it.  It is doubtful whether many buildings still stand that can lay claim to the privilege.  After much deliberation it was thought wise to broaden the scope of the music, rather than have only works by Paganini, therefore Brahms, Beethoven, Ravel and Stravinsky are also represented.  The playing of the Violin Concerto No. 1 in D by Paganini with only piano accompaniment might be frowned upon today; given the special circumstances however, it seems in character.  There will be a selection from the 24 caprices.  The distinguished duo Dong-Suk Kang and Gordon Back with Andrew Ball (piano solo) will be providing the music. To complete the event an exhibition of Paganini items and memorabilia will be on view, including a music manuscript and letter in his own hand, letters from Felix Mendelssohn with references to Paganini’s English friend and physician Dr. Archibald Billing.  There is also a fine oil painting “Lady with Cittern” c. 1770, from Paganini’s own collection (see page?)

            The festival takes place on October 16 and 17, with concerts each evening starting at 7.30 p.m. and a lunchtime recital on Sunday at 1 p.m. of music for piano (transcriptions of Paganini themes, including the first performance of Paganini’s own piano transcription of his “La Campanella” theme).

            The proprietor of St. John’s House is happy to show the public over the historic building with so many musical associations.

Placing a small piece of Winchester’s rich musical history into place brings its own reward.