The Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 6, was composed by Niccolò Paganini in Italy, probably between 1817 and 1818. The concerto reveals that Paganini's technical wizardry was fully developed. Contemporary audiences gasped at the extended passages of double-stop thirds, both chromatic and in harmonics.
Paganini intended the Concerto to be heard in E-flat major: the orchestral parts were written in E-flat, and the solo part was written in D major with instructions for the violin to be tuned a semitone high (a technique known as scordatura) so that it would therefore sound in E-flat. This enables the soloist to achieve effects sounding in E-flat, which would not be possible with normal tuning. An example of this is the opening of the third movement, where the violin plays a rapid downward scale A-G-F♯-E-D, both bowed and pizzicato, which is possible on an open D-string, but extremely difficult in the key of E-flat (i.e. playing B♭-A♭-G-F-E♭) because two strings would be required to play this downward scale, whereas only one string is required to play it in the key of D. In addition, having the orchestra playing in E-flat appears comparatively to mute the sound of the orchestra compared to the solo violin, because the orchestral string section plays less frequently on open strings, with the result that the solo violin part emerges more clearly and brightly from the orchestral accompaniment.
Contemporary audiences did not realise that Paganini had retuned his instrument, and were thus all the more amazed at what he appeared able to play. (The more musically adept members of the audience would have recognised the distinctive sound of a violin's open string, and would have observed that this fell on the keynote of work (E-flat), and would have therefore realised that Paganini had re-tuned his violin.)
D major arrangement
A version of the piece was later published (by a composer unknown) with the orchestral parts written out in D major. This was presumably done with sight of the first edition, to accommodate a rendition without the requirement of scordatura. Perhaps due to the disuse of this technique, the D major version assumed popularity, becoming more recognised and performed than the original. As a result, the existence of the work in its originally-intended key of E-flat is rather unknown, and the original composition has been obscured.
Leslie Howard's arrangement
Scholar and musicologist Leslie Howard (known for his work on Paganini's contemporary Franz Liszt) has prepared for publication an edition of the concerto in the correct key of E-flat, with reference both to Paganini's manuscript and the first (not entirely correct) edition. Howard's edition is the first to be published in the correct key and with the solo part. (Paganini was famously secretive with the orchestral and solo parts of his compositions, often collecting them personally immediately after a performance, in order to avoid the possibility of other people copying his 'tricks' or performing his works; so the solo part of the concerto was not included in the original published score.)
Leslie Howard's edition was commissioned and published by the Istituto Italiano per la Storia della Musica (Rome, 2007), as Volume VIII of the Edizione Nazionale delle opere di Niccolò Paganini. This scholarly edition includes facsimiles of the score, the solo part, and also all the extra parts that were added from time to time.
Paganini's original published scoring was for 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, and strings.
In the years following the original publication of the work, Paganini occasionally expanded his orchestration, writing out some odd parts to add from time to time in performance: 2nd flute, 2nd bassoon, doubled the horns, added trombones 1 & 2 (moving the existing trombone part to trombone 3 basso), timpani, and banda turca (bass drum, crash cymbals, and suspended cymbal). He never added these into the one and only manuscript score.
The concerto shows the great influence of the Italian bel canto style, and especially Paganini's younger contemporary Gioachino Rossini
The later addition of instruments from a military band give this orchestration a distinct "military" sound.
The concerto is in three movements:
- Allegro maestoso – Tempo giusto (in D major; or E-flat major with scordatura)
- Adagio (in B minor ending in B major; or, C minor ending in C major with scordatura)
- Rondo. Allegro spirituoso – Un poco più presto (in D major; or E-flat major with scordatura)
Émile Sauret (1852 – 1920), a French violinist and composer, wrote a famous cadenza for the first movement.