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The Rock Star of Encores

Posted On June 23, 2020 | 08:48 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Robyn Bollinger revives the macabre Paganini, “The Hot Canary,” and other touchstones of an indulgent musical tradition

Robyn Bollinger, violinist and recent Leonore Annenberg Arts Fellowship recipient, was the fall 2019 Early-Career Musician Resident. Her research report spotlighted legends, controversies, emotions, and practices of encores throughout history.


Q&A with Robyn Bollinger

What is an encore? 

Encores have been used many ways over the centuries. Today we think of an encore as a short piece that’s typically sweet or light or fun, found at the end of a program. Many pieces in the multimedia recital program I am developing, “Encore! Just One More . . .,” were not necessarily written as encores, because our idea of an encore reflects the modern idea of what a concert should look like. Encores are often written off because they’re small and kind of light—but like chocolate to the steak of a symphony or string quartet, encores are about the moments that make life worth living.


How do the pieces we now think of as encores engage with musical tradition and innovation? 

Musicians often talk to each other across centuries. For example, Niccolò Paganini was very much in dialogue with Pietro Locatelli and even with Johann Sebastian Bach, who we now consider the father of classical music. Bach was a Baroque composer who lived from 1685 to 1750 and completely reinvented music as we know it. The relatively little-known Pietro Locatelli was also active in the early 1700s. His work is not as musically innovative as Bach’s, but what he did for violin technique and performance was exceptional. We’ve forgotten because Locatelli’s legacy can’t compete with that of Paganini, who lived from 1782 to 1840, at the height of the Romantic era. What Bach did for music in general, Paginini did for the violin—but he owed a lot of his inspiration to the pioneering steps Locatelli first took. 

They were all brilliant violinists. Paganini was perhaps the most successful violinist of the three, yet his Caprice No. 1, which is a fabulous fiery little encore, is very much a challenge to Locatelli. Some of the encores in my program are reverent and respectful of their musical forebears. But Paganini literally stole Locatelli’s idea and then did it better. So encores can have lots of personal subtext as well as musical roots. 

Paganini, by the way, had something of the first rock star about him. He was an infamous figure and purposefully cultivated fabulous tall tales about himself: that he sold his soul to the devil, killed his own wife, broke a violin string while jailed and therefore wrote music for this one particular string. What is actually true is that his health was poor. He likely had Marfan syndrome—he could stretch his hands much farther than an ordinary man. Because of side effects of the disease, on top of other health issues, he had terrible dental hygiene and had all his teeth pulled when he was about 30. In his concerts, blood would literally trickle from his mouth, adding to the macabre sensibility around his persona. Also, he played during a big cholera outbreak in the 1830s, and people thought if you attended one of his concerts, you would die. (Actually people were just contracting cholera.) The great romanticism and mystery and fear around him made him enormously popular.


Who was Florian ZaBach, and what discoveries did you make about him during your residency?

I learned so much from the community at Dumbarton Oaks about the nature of research, and by far my most exciting research project this term was about Florian ZaBach. I grew up knowing the encore “The Hot Canary,” a fun little ditty he wrote that sort of sounds like violin with honky-tonk piano. I intend to play the piece in my program, so I thought I should research it.

I found that the Library of Congress has a Florian ZaBach special collection, which it turns out was completely unprocessed: it was still in the boxes it came in. So I’ve been researching the collection in conjunction with the library. I found ZaBach’s stepdaughter and family friend and interviewed them. The library has been processing his recordings for me, so now anyone can go to the Library of Congress audio archives and listen to him, which was not the case when I started my residency.

ZaBach was an amazing violinist: a child prodigy who returned from World War II really interested in jazz violin. He started a band that was quickly picked up by a show in New York, and eventually he filmed his own TV show in Hollywood. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Before the Beatles and changes to popular music between the 1950s and the 1960s, instrumental covers of jazz standards (for example, by Sinatra or Nat King Cole) were really popular. Today lots of people don’t know about ZaBach because his records didn’t survive in the same way that, say, the Beatles’ did. But he was an incredible musician.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.