Obituary: Ruggiero Ricci, violinist

Charlotte Smith8th Aug 2012
Ruggiero Ricci performing at the House of Artists in Prague in 1958 (photo: CTK Ruggiero Ricci performing at the House of Artists in Prague in 1958 (photo: CTK / Alamy)

Ruggiero Ricci, violinist and teacher and last of a golden age of violinists such as Yehudi Menuhin and Jascha Heifetz, has died of heart failure in California, aged 94.

Son of Italian immigrants, Ricci was born in San Bruno, California in 1918. Although his family was a musical one, none of his many siblings reached the same heights as Ruggiero, who was quickly seen to be particularly talented and ultimately sent for lessons with the famous teacher, Louis Persinger (who was also teaching Yehudi Menuhin at that point). Described by some critics and concert-goers of the time as a ‘young genius’, Ricci played his first solo recital (one of around 6,000 he was to play over the course of his career, in 65 countries) at the Carnegie Hall at the age of 11, shortly after giving his first orchestral performance in London of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Although he found widespread fame as a child prodigy the experience for Ricci was not a happy one; he described himself as a very lonely child (‘I could play eight different versions of solitaire’, he said) and his career entered what turned out to be a long wilderness period before he was even a teenager:

‘When I was 12, I was a has-been,’ he said in an interview in 2007. ‘In my teens I was nothing. I wasn’t a grown-up artist, and I wasn’t a prodigy. Those were bad years. No matter what I did, they criticised me.’

It was, though, something to which Ricci applied his characteristic philosophical nature, and the insight he gained into the emptiness of pure virtuosity uninformed by artistic understanding was a quality he applied to both his teaching and his own practice for the rest of his life. He was a revered teacher at the Universities of Michigan and Indiana, as well as the Juilliard School of Music in New York and the Salzburg Mozarteum, and would frequently berate students attending his masterclasses for warming up using the pieces they were about to play rather than plain scales and arpeggios. He, himself would practise his student exercises every day, and wrote (among others) two treatises on violin technique (Left-Hand Violin Technique, and Ricci on Glissando). Both have caused heated discussion over the years as to whether his forensic approach was really a misapplication of technique, but there is nevertheless complete agreement that they both contain unique direction on how to play almost impossible music with the kind of (relative) ease that might be considered a short-cut to virtuosity. Such instruction was gratefully received by Ricci’s many pupils and earned him the epithet ‘the Paganini of the 20th Century’.

Ricci’s career started with Paganini, in fact, and he made the first of his four recordings of the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin in 1947 (he made the final one in 1988, on the ‘Cannone’ del Gesu, Paganini’s own violin). He admitted in later interviews that he did, in fact, play so much Paganini in his early days just because he was trying to prove he could ‘play more fiddle than the next guy’, but it was nevertheless the start of a prodigious repertoire list that he developed during his time as an ‘entertainment specialist’ during World War II, playing solo violin for the troops during his time in the air force. He uncovered many unknown pieces of 19th century music during that time, many of them forming the basis of the over-500 recordings he made during his career – among them a Brahms Violin Concerto disc including 16 individual cadenzas by famous violinists. His personality as a performer and recording artist was finessed by his continuing post-prodigy sensitivity, and his resulting fear of anonymous playing. Prodigy, the ease of air travel and lack of national identity in playing style were all elements he saw as risk factors in featureless, bland perfection.

The loneliness of the transition from prodigy to artist had also sensitised him to the technical competition around him, and being not only careful to maintain his student practice of scales and exercises Ricci made sure he played extremely high-quality instruments. His main playing instrument for the greater proportion of his career was the 'ex-Huberman' del Gesu of 1734 (he was aware that all the great violinists he sought to emulate - Kreisler, Heifetz, Ysaÿe and Paganini - played del Gesus), although he owned a number of other enviable instruments that included some particularly fine Storionis and a copy of the 1735 ‘Plowden’ del Gesu that Ricci commissioned from the respected contemporary American maker, Samuel Zygmuntowicz.  

For many, though, Ricci will be remembered simply for his warmth, the risks he took musically and his innovations as the teacher who said: ‘You have to try for the impossible, just in order to make the possible possible.’

Caroline Gill

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