On Niccolò Paganini: The Devil’s Violinist
Niccolò Paganini. See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In today’s essay, we shall take a look at the life and legend of one of the most influential and celebrated violinists of all time, Niccolò Paganini, also known as The Devil’s Violinist.
Unless you are interested in Western classical music, or in playing the violin, the odds are you have probably not heard of Paganini. Although he is widely regarded as one of the greatest violin virtuosos and composers of his time, he is no longer a household name like Beethoven or Mozart. However, that does not and should not diminish his influence and impact on modern music.
Let us now take a brief look into who Paganini was, his life, and his legacy.
Niccolò Paganini was an Italian violinist and composer born on 27th October 1782 to Teresa and Antonio Paganini, in the city of Genoa, which was then the capital of the Republic of Genoa.
Paganini’s father was a trader and musician, who played the mandolin for additional income as he was not a very successful trader.
Inspired by his father, Paganini began learning to play the mandolin under his father’s tutelage at the mere age of 5. After two years of practicing the mandolin, he switched to learning to play the violin at the age of 7.
It turned out that not only did Paganini enjoy playing the violin more, but he also had a natural talent and aptitude for the instrument. He quickly began getting good at playing the violin, so much so that others began noticing his talent and skills.
This early recognition of his talent proved to be very advantageous for the young Paganini as it earned him several scholarships for learning and mastering the violin.
Niccolò Paganini jumped at the opportunity and began studying the instrument under the tutelage of well-known local violinists such as Giacomo Costa and Giovanni Servetto.
However, it is said that Paganini became so good so quickly that his skills soon surpassed that of his tutors, making it impossible for them to continue teaching the young violinist.
Now, is this actually true, or just one of those legends and myths that inevitably spring up around great men and women in an attempt to justify their greatness? Honestly, I do not know. It is quite difficult to confirm this story yet not entirely impossible that it did happen. Maybe he really was that good at such a young age, who knows?
Anyway, looking at the incapability of his tutors to teach him further, Paganini’s father took him to the city of Parma to study under the great violin virtuoso Alessandro Rolla.
Interestingly enough, now the legend regarding the young boy’s skills intensifies. When Rolla heard Paganini play the violin, he admitted that Paganini’s skills surpassed his own, and so he referred him to his own tutor, Ferdinando Paer, and then to Paer’s tutor, Gasparo Ghiretti.
Paganini’s stint with Paer and Ghiretti was quite brief, yet their compositional style would go on to have a great influence on his own compositional style.
In March 1796, when Niccolò Paganini was 13 years old and still developing as a violinist, Genoa was invaded by the French along with the rest of Northern Italy. His family immediately fled to their country property in Romairone, hoping to find safety there. It was there in the country house that Paganini began learning the guitar, eventually mastering it.
Even though he became a highly skillful guitarist, Paganini had no desire to play the instrument professionally at concerts. For him, the guitar became the instrument he loved to play in private, in intimate settings, and he wished to keep it that way. He had decided to only play the violin publicly at concerts, but it is said that he always carried a guitar along with him while on tours.
By the time he was 17 years old, Paganini had begun performing at concerts in the port city of Livorno, where his father was engaged in maritime work. Paganini had begun his career as a freelance violinist which promised to be highly lucrative.
When he was 18 years old, he was appointed the first violin of the Republic of Lucca. However, he continued with his freelance career simultaneously, which formed the majority of his income. It was during this period that he began womanizing and gambling on a regular basis, eventually acquiring a reputation for both.
As Paganini worked toward establishing himself as a violinist in Lucca, political upheaval once again followed him, and Lucca was annexed by Napoleon Bonaparte, who was then the Emperor of France. Bonaparte ceded Lucca to his sister Elisa Bonaparte and her husband Felice Baciocchi.
However, instead of fleeing to another region, this time Paganini stayed behind and became a violinist in the court of Baciocchi, where he began giving violin lessons to Felice.
In 1807, when Elisa became the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and her court was shifted to Florence, Paganini followed her as part of the entourage. Two years later, in 1809, at the age of 27, Paganini left the Baciocchi court to concentrate on his career as a freelance violinist.
While performing at concerts, Paganini almost always played his own compositions, all of which would go on to have a great influence on violin music, thereby making significant contributions to the evolution of violin techniques.
During his time with the Bacciochi court from 1805 to 1809, Paganini composed his famous 24 Caprices for solo violin, which would go on to inspire and influence several prominent composers in the future. The 24 Caprices are now among his most famous and admired compositions.
During this period, Paganini also composed several solo pieces, duo sonatas, trios, and quartets for the guitar.
His violin compositions gained a lot of attention and praise for him as a violinist and composer, as his compositions were technically advanced and innovative for the time, thereby helping to expand the timbre of the violin. Some of his compositions even included imitations of animals as well as sounds of other instruments.
His composition, Duetto Amoroso, which is a solo piece, accurately depicts with the violin the groans and sighs, and other sounds made by lovers. Another composition, The Spanish Dance, depicted the sounds of farm animals.
Paganini’s violin-playing style and compositions were said to be primarily influenced by Polish-born French violinist August Duranowski and Italian violinist Pietro Antonio Locatelli. He was particularly inspired by the showmanship and innovations of Duranowski, incorporating a lot of his style and technique and making it his own.
During his early years of development as a violinist, Niccolò Paganini not only practiced these innovations that went against traditional violin music, but also worked on his techniques, dexterity, agility, and flexibility on the instrument.
He was said to have had long fingers that allowed him to play three octaves across four strings in a hand span, which was something rare back then and is still quite difficult to do.
After leaving the court of Baciocchi in 1809, Paganini toured the areas surrounding Genoa and Parma for the next four years. These local tours helped to establish him as a violinist locally, allowing him to attract and build a loyal audience and fanbase.
However, he was not really known beyond the cities in which he regularly performed and was almost entirely unknown in the rest of Europe. This only began to change in 1813, after he had performed at a highly successful concert in Milan, where he attracted the attention of some influential but conservative musicians of Europe.
He also got the opportunity to meet other prominent violinists of the time such as German violinist Louis Spohr and French violinist Charles Philippe Lafont, but he did not get along with them due to feelings of rivalry.
Although the concert in Milan helped to somewhat spread his name outside of Italy, he still continued to tour and perform only in Italy for the next few years. His career progressed slowly but steadily.
In the meanwhile, Paganini continued to compose the 24 Caprices, with the final caprice, Caprice No. 24 in A Minor, being composed in 1817. This caprice would go on to influence several subsequent composers such as Robert Schumann, Boris Blacher, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Witold Lutoslawski, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Even though Paganini’s career was slowly on the rise, his health was in steady decline due to his lifestyle and demanding touring schedule. In 1822, at the age of 39, he was diagnosed with syphilis and began taking opium and mercury as a remedy. Needless to say, this had some severe psychological and physical side effects on him, further deteriorating his health.
He also suffered from other chronic illnesses such as Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the connective tissue, resulting in those suffering from it generally being thin and tall, and tending to have long arms, fingers, legs, toes, etc. This, scholars believe, could explain Paganini’s oddly long fingers.
In 1827, when Paganini was around 44 years old, his career suddenly skyrocketed after Pope Leo XII honored him with the Order of the Golden Spur. This recognition by the Pope himself suddenly made him famous all across Europe, which was further solidified by his concert tours in major cities in Austria, Poland, Germany, Bohemia, Britain, and France.
This European tour would last for years, starting from 1828 onward, making him one of the most popular violinists and composers in Europe at the time. He came to be regarded as a violin virtuoso as he frequently showcased his unique and superior technical ability and innovative compositions on stage.
Looking at how good Paganini was with the violin, rumors began circulating that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his extraordinary skills. This rumor led to him being known as The Devil’s Violinist.
During his travels, he met and befriended other great composers such as Hector Berlioz, Gioachino Rossini, Mauro Giuliani, and Ferdinando Carulli.
In 1834, Paganini was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was treated for the same in Paris. This would mark the beginning of the end of his career, as from this moment on his illustrious career went into a slow decline. He began canceling concerts regularly now due to health issues, which included depression.
It was in September of 1834, at the age of 51, that Paganini decided to retire from touring and returned to Genoa, where he began working on publishing his violin techniques and compositions. He even began giving violin lessons to a few students.
In 1835, he returned to Parma as a member of the court of Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, who was the second wife of Napolean. He was given the responsibility of restructuring and reorganizing the court orchestra. Unfortunately, he ended up having disagreements with the court and the orchestra players regarding the vision he had for the court orchestra.
Shortly thereafter, Paganini left Parma for Paris in order to establish a casino. He invested the majority of his funds in the casino, however, the casino was a massive failure from the very beginning and threw him into financial distress.
Paganini’s financial situation got so bad that he had to resort to selling and auctioning his personal possessions, including his instruments, to make up for his losses.
During his time in Paris, he met a young 11-year-old boy named Apollinaire de Kontski, who was by then already a violin virtuoso. The two became good friends and Paganini even gave him a flattering signed testimonial and a few lessons.
By the late 1830s, Paganini’s health had worsened tremendously, so much so that in May 1840, while he was in Nice, the Bishop of Nice sent a local priest to perform his last rites. But Paganini refused, considering it to be premature.
However, barely a week later, on 27th May 1840, Niccolò Paganini died of internal hemorrhaging at the age of 57.
He died before a priest could perform his last rites. Due to this, and the widespread rumor of his pact with the devil, the church refused to give him a Catholic burial in Genoa. The church did not even allow his body to be transported to Genoa until four years later after an appeal to the Pope. However, he was still refused burial.
It was only in 1876, 36 years after his death, that he was finally given a Catholic burial in a cemetery in Parma.
Paganini’s works have gone on to have a massive influence on classical violin music and contemporary music as well. His innovative violin techniques and compositions have influenced countless violinists and other musicians of subsequent generations, thereby securing his legacy to this very day.
Paganini’s name and legacy continue to live on in popular culture through various movies, television series and plays based on or inspired by his life. Rest assured, The Devil’s Violinist shall live on for many more centuries to come.