American violin legend Ruggiero Ricci has died of heart failure at the age of 94.
Ricci, born in San Francisco in 1918 to Italian parents, was sometimes known as the “Paganini of the 20th century” for his mastery of Paganini’s violin works. He began studying violin at age 6 with Louis Persinger, who also taught Yehudi Menuhin. His talent was recognized early when he won a local violin competition. In a newspaper report on the contest, Ricci was referred to as “a youthful genius.”
The violinist made his recital debut in 1928 in San Francisco and in 1930 played for the great Fritz Kreisler. In 1932, he gave his first tour of Europe at the age of 14, making his debut in London with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. That same year, he performed for Albert Einstein at the California Institute of Technology.
He continued to perform around the world for the next 11 years, until World War II put his travels on hold. Unlike so many instrumental wunderkinds whose careers disintegrate before they reach adulthood, Ricci determinedly perfected his technique as a teenager to ensure that he could grow into a true artist. As part of his service in the Army Air Force, Ricci was an “entertainment specialist” who played for the troops, often under very unusual conditions and without accompaniment. This gave him the chance to explore much of the solo violin repertoire, including Paganini’s works, with which he would become so identified.
In total, Ricci performed over 5,000 concerts in 65 countries during his performance career, which ended in 2003 when he was 85. His repertoire spanned from solo works by Bach to world premieres of works by contemporary composers. In 1963, he gave the first performance of a concerto by Alberto Ginastera with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. In 1970 premiered a Gottfried von Einem concerto with Seiji Ozawa and the Vienna Philharmonic. He also made over 500 recordings, including the concertos of Beethoven (with 14 different cadenzas), Brahms (with 16 cadenzas), Saint-Saëns, Khachaturian and Tchaikovsky.
In 1947, Ricci made the first-ever recording of the unabridged Paganini Caprices, and went on to make several more. For his fourth recording of the works, he played on Paganini’s own Guarneri, which was lent to him by the city of Genoa, Italy.
Ricci’s career took place during an era of violin playing when international travel was rapidly becoming easier, which meant that lines were being blurred between distinct national schools of teaching and playing. Like many of his generation, he lamented this fact, and often complained about the homogeneity that had begun to take over modern violin playing as styles merged. He criticized the rising competition scene for encouraging technical perfection at the expense of expressive, musical playing.
A devoted pedagogue, Ricci taught at Indiana University, the Juilliard School, the University of Michigan and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. He continued teaching and giving master classes well into his later years. He encouraged his students to be picky about their influences, as he had been, and he took pride in the fact that if he played a recording of one of his students, he could always identify the performer.
He also wrote extensively on violin technique, most notably in his popular books Ricci on Glissando: The Shortcut to Violin Technique and Left Hand Violin Technique. Ricci once summed up his approach to violin playing by saying, “To improve, you have to try for the impossible, in order to make the possible possible.”
Ricci is survived by his wife, Julia, and his children Riana, Roger, Paola and Gian-Franco.