Music filmmaker Christopher Nupen was “haunted” by Paganini as he delved into the life of classical music’s first rock god.

Christopher Nupen discusses his latest documentary, Paganini’s Daemon: A Most Enduring Legend.

The first thing to say about our Paganini film, which is released on DVD this week, is that it was shot and lit by an Aussie cameraman — David Findlay. David has lit almost all of my films, ever since we first met on March 10, 1966, on the first day’s shoot of my first film.

We made a film together for the BBC about my friends Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim: a film which presented them to the television public for the first time. It was shot in three days and edited in three weeks.

We have worked together ever since because I have never seen a lighting cameraman do better. His lighting, his composition and his camera work show gifts of the highest order; they bear witness to a glorious artistic sensibility — and endless hard work, invested in polishing those gifts.

The prizes came, not because the film is so well made, but because it brought an exuberance into music programming that had not been seen before. Picking up the spirit of the time (and the new equipment) and feeding on the ebullience of our artists,  we made films about Jacqueline du Pré, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Zubin Mehta, John Williams, Itzhak Perlman, Andrés Segovia and others, showing aspects of their personalities and their music making which had not been seen in public before.

David and I, with our editor, Peter Heelas, began to wonder whether what film had done for performers could be applied to composers and perhaps even to music itself — the most abstract and intangible of all the arts.

Our early films, although they paid homage to the music, were more concerned with the facts and figures, times, names, places etc. than with the art itself. We felt that  we should try to go deeper; shift the focus from the when and where and the who to the bigger question of why. What is it that gives art such enduring power? How does it happen, to use the memorable words of Sir Kenneth Clark in the Civilisation series, that, “once art touches the soul in that way, it calls that soul back for the rest of its days.”?

At first we doubted whether we could do it and we abandoned several projects but eventually found our way to Respighi, Brahms, Mussorgsky, Sibelius, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Piazzolla and, now, Paganini.

Paganini was the most difficult flim to structure because he made so much more of an impact in the world as a performer than as a composer, yet he could not step out in front of our cameras in his inimitable way — as our young friends had done in our early films.

I  was repeatedly haunted, even in dreams,  by the regret that we had not been there when Paganini descended like a meteor on the most elevated public he had ever confronted, in the Opera House in Paris in 1831. That would have made a film to remember! It nevertheless provides a telling sequence for Paganini’s Daemon.

We twice abandoned the idea, believing that we could not do justice to our subject, but a visit to Edward Neill at the Paganini Institute in Genoa turned into a revelation.

There is an aura which radiates from the great performers and increases with age as they strive to fulfil what the world expects from them and their talents. As our earlier films had demonstrated so clearly, the camera is sensitive to that aura in a way that books, audio recordings, critiques, analyses and written or spoken commentary are not.

Looking at hundreds of images, I discovered that Paganini was so remarkable, so unusual and so individual, that he sparked the most lively, even inspired, responses from dozens of different artists. I saw with startling clarity that something of the legendary artistic persona had been captured by those artists in their drawings and paintings. I saw the man who created the most enduring and the most complex legend of all performing musicians in the entire history of Western classical music

We had to try!

Film loves to remember; loves drama; loves the unexpected; loves virtuosity and quality; loves to creep in close and show us things we have not seen before. All of these possibilities, and many more besides, were offered by Paganini in extravagant measure.

And, as if that were not enough, the whole effect was animated by hot and widespread controversy — film also loves controversy and  Paganini provided more than his fair share of that!

We soon found that we had something else of crucial importance to draw on: violinist Gidon Kremer’s glorious skills, untiring energy and unwavering commitment. And so, we plunged in with the help of Australian guitarist John Williams — because Paganini so loved the guitar — plus the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana; the Coro della Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana, and the conductor, Lawrence Foster.

The film that emerged, Paganini’s Daemon, uses Paganini’s music, his own words and the words of his many admirers and detractors, plus the techniques which we developed for our earlier, prize-winning composer documentaries, to try and draw a true and honest picture of the most controversial and the most riveting  performer in the history of classical music. 

Christopher Nupen’s film Paganini’s Daemon: A Most Enduring Legend is available on DVD on Allegro Films.