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  • The Hissing of Jean-Pierre Pagin: Diderot’s Violinist Meets the Cabal at the Concert Spirituel
  • Beverly Wilcox (bio)

When the British music historian Charles Burney passed through Paris on his way to Italy in 1770, he spent a day at the house of a wealthy salonnière, where he met a violinist named Pagin. He later published an account of the meeting which is as enigmatic as it is intriguing:

M. Pagin was a pupil of Tartini, and is regarded here as his best scholar; he has a great deal of expression and facility of executing difficulties; but whether he did not exert himself, as the room was not large, or from whatever cause it proceeded, I know not, but his tone was not powerful. Music is now no longer his profession; he has a place under the Comte de Clermont, of about two hundred and fifty pounds sterling a year. He had the honor of being hissed at the Concert Spirituel for daring to play in the Italian style, and this was the reason of his quitting the profession.1

The hissing occurred twenty years earlier, in 1750. It is not difficult to reconcile the contradiction between quitting the profession of music and having a place under an arts-loving prince, nor of being the “best scholar” of Giuseppe Tartini yet having weak tone: the salary (more than 5500 livres) suggests that Pagin had moved on from music to some other job, and was a [End Page 103] musical amateur when Burney heard him. A more complex problem is the conflict between the allegation that he was hissed for playing “in the Italian style” and the success enjoyed by numerous Italian violinists and singers at the Concert Spirituel since its inception in 1725. There were dozens of accounts of the hissing of Pagin, beginning two years after the event, and Burney’s was not the only one to bring up the issue of “Italian style.”

Pagin was born in Paris in June of 1723, and his mother died soon after his birth.2 His father was a maître à danser, and since he played the violin in the course of his work, he was probably Pagin’s first violin teacher.3 As a teenager, Pagin made the difficult and expensive journey over the Alps to study with Tartini, who had opened a school for violinists in 1728, in which up to ten pupils at a time received violin and counterpoint lessons. The physics teacher and aeronautical pioneer Jacques Charles describes Pagin’s training under Tartini:

Le sieur Amati à 90 ans a fait un violon à la prière de Tartini. Ce violon est celui que possédait le celèbre Pagin; sorti de France à l’age de 20 ans, ce fut un des premiers violons de France. Eleve de Gaviniez, il fut faire un tour en Italie pour entendre Tartini: il fut si effrayé du jeu de Tartini, qu’il se mit à son école. Tartini le tint pendant 6 mois à faire des gammes. Pagin eut la modestie et le bon sens de se mettre à l’école. Il en est parti la seule et vraie copie de Tartini qui ait existé. Il est mort il y a 3 ans, et avec lui l’école de Tartini a fini. C’est une école qui ne pourra pas renaître, parce que le genre de musique que nous avons adopté ne se prête pas à cela. Tartini pria donc Amati de lui faire un violon pour un jeune homme qu’il avait adopté. Amati dit: il faut que je prenne mes lunettes. Il a écrit dans l’interieur qu’il a fait cet instrument à l’age de 90 ans. Ce violon est un des meilleurs instrumens qui existent.4

The Amati in question was Girolomo II (1649–1740), so this story places Pagin in Padua around 1739. Although Tartini usually limited his pupils to a one-year stay at the school, Pagin remained for longer: the preface to Tartini’s op. 7 sonatas notes the “years which he passed in Italy.”5

Pagin was back in Paris by 1747, when the playwright Pierre Laujon wrote that the Comte de Clermont had “un...


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