Paganini, Niccolo



Italian violinist; generally considered the greatest violin virtuoso that ever lived. He was born at Genoa, where his father, Antonio, was a tradesman and an amateur mandolin player of some ability, who, perceiving his son's talent, early began to cultivate it. Niccolo was naturally delicate and the unremitting practise to which his father forced him was most injurious to his health. Niccolo's mother, however, greatly encouraged him by the story of a dream in which an angel had promised her that he would be the greatest violinist in the world, and this encouragement coupled with his own passion for music led him to persevere. At six years of age he had become a remarkable player, and soon after, having learned all he could from his father, he was placed with Servetto, violinist in one of the theatres, and then under Giacomo Costa, chapelmaster of the principal churches of Genoa. In 1793, then but nine years old, Niccolo made his debut at a concert, playing original variations on La Carmagnole, to the great delight of the audience. He also played regularly at church, but in 1795, his father thinking that further study would make him of greater market value, decided to take him to Parma. The necessary funds were raised by a benefit concert, and father and son arrived at Parma to find the noted musician, Rolla, sick in bed. While waiting in an adjoining room Niccolo saw a violin and a new composition on the table, and taking the instrument played it at sight so perfectly that Rolla inquired what master was in the house. On seeing a mere boy he could hardly believe his eyes and protested that he could teach him nothing. However, he did direct Paganini's studies for a short time, and then the boy took three lessons a week in counterpoint and composition from Ghiretti. So rapidly did he advance that on his return to Genoa he composed works which he himself had to study hard to execute. After a period of ten or twelve hours a day practise he set out with his father on his first tour through Lombardy, making so great a success that instead of returning home he went on to Pisa and neighboring towns, and being no longer under parental restraint he fell to gambling and leading a dissolute life. The money from several concerts would be lost in a night and he once had to sell his violin, arriving at Leghorn, where he was to give a concert, without an instrument. M. Leyron, a kind French merchant, lent him a fine Guarnerius, and then refused to take it back, saying that he would but profane the instrument which Paganini's fingers had touched. Again he was almost compelled to sell this gift, which he held so dear, and in desperation staked his last money. He won, but the experience led him to give up gambling for good.


From 1801 to 1804 he devoted himself to the guitar and to agriculture, living in retirement. He then returned to Genoa and studied the violin compositions of Locatelli and others, composing at this time his three grand quartets for violin, viola, guitar and cello. In 1805 he began touring again, and was made Court violinist to Napoleon's sister, Elisa Bacecocchi, Princess of Lucca. It was at her court that he began his astonishing feats on two and on one string, which he accounted for in the following manner: He wished to express his affection for a certain lady of the court, and accordingly devised a Scene Amoureuse, a duet on the E and G strings, representing the lady and her lover. This clever invention pleased the Princess, who asked if one string would not suffice for his talent, and at that suggestion he wrote his sonata for the G string, called Napoleon, which so captivated his hearers. His roving disposition did not allow him to remain long in one place, and in 1808 he obtained permission from the Princess to make a tour. Leaving Florence about 1812 he took up his residence in Milan, where in 1816 he played with Lafont, worsting him, as far as popular applause was concerned, though he himself said that the Frenchman's tone was probably better. He spent most of the year 1816 at Venice in rather poor health, but in 1817 he was  traveling again, being at Rome during the Carnival. In 1818 he toured Northern Italy, later visiting Naples, where opinion was inclined to be adverse, but he played so perfectly the difficult piece prepared to stagger him that the enthusiasm became as great as in the rest of Italy. His first visit to Sicily, about 1819, was not a very great success, but on again appearing at Palermo he was well received. The same year he had been in Rome and Naples, and the next he spent largely in Venice. In 1823 he was prevented by sickness from making a tour of Germany, but on recovering he appeared in the principal Italian cities including Milan, where in 1820 he had founded the Gli Orfei Society, and Rome, where on a later visit in 1827 Pope Leo XII. decorated him with the order of the Golden Spur. From Milan in 1828 he made his long looked for journey to Vienna and there created intense excitement.


Paganini was tall and very thin, with a hawk nose, penetrating eyes, and a protruding chin, and around all was a mass of long black hair which intensified the livid color of his face. His strange looks and bearing added to his almost superhuman genius had given rise to all sorts of fanciful tales. He was said to have murdered his wife, or rival, accounts varied, and to have been imprisoned for eight years when his only comfort was an old violin with but one string, on which   he learned to play so excruciatingly that his jailers had to release him. Another story made him out to be the child of Satan, whom one man said he saw directing his bow at a concert, and at night the people near an old Florentine castle which Paganini frequently visited declared that he held intercourse with the devil, for  they heard all manner of queer noises   coming from the place. Such stories as these circulated far and wide and found many to believe them, and so annoying had they become that at Vienna and later in Paris, Paganini took official steps to silence them. But in vain. They preceded him on his tour of Germany, where he was received with wild applause. He played in Berlin in 1829, visited Dresden, Munich, Frankfort and many other cities, and in March, 1831, arrived at Paris. After two months at the French capjtal, in which time he changed the attitude towards him from doubt to admiration, he made his first appearance in   London, where throngs followed him in the streets, even pinching him at times to see if he were real. After touring England, Ireland and Scotland, creating the usual furore everywhere, he returned to the Continent in 1832; toured Holland and Belgium, and during the winter of 1833 was at Paris. The receipts from Paganini's travels amounted to a large fortune, most of which he invested in real estate, and on returning to Italy in 1834 he retired to his newly acquired Villa Gajona, near Parma. In 1839 his health was so poor that he was ordered to Marseilles, where he recovered sufficiently to play in a Beethoven mass at church. Believing himself cured he returned to Genoa but was forced to seek the milder climate of Nice for the winter. He did not think that death was near and was so busy planning a new tour that he sent away the priest who had come to give him the final rites of the church. So, unabsolved, death overtook him one beautiful May night in 1840, as he lay clasping his favorite violin and gazing out of the window at the moonlit scene. The Bishop of Nice refused to give him Christian burial, and while the matter was referred to the Spiritual Council the body was embalmed and removed to a sealed room in the lazaretto at Villa Franca. The fact that so many came from near and far to do honor to the poor remains made the priests very angry and when the Council returned a favorable verdict it was overruled by the Archbishop. After five years' delay, Achilles Paganini gained permission from the Pope to bury his father in the churchyard at the Villa, near Parma. The son inherited the title of Baron, which had been conferred on Paganini in Germany, and the fortune of about four hundred thousand dollars, with the exception of small legacies left to Paganini's sisters, and an annuity to the singer, Antonia Bianchi, the mother of Achilles. Paganini is accused of being avaricious, but he was always generous with his mother, and also played frequently for charity. Despite his eccentricities, Paganini's patience with and love for his little son, whom he legitimized by a process of law, and his tenderness toward his mother command respect.


Paganini seldom played anything but his own compositions, in which he could show to the best advantage his peculiar style, and never allowed anyone to see his solo score. He only permitted a few of his works to be printed during his life the twentyfour caprices for solo violin, which are so famous, and which have been transcribed for the piano by Liszt and Schumann; two sets of six sonatas for the violin and guitar; and three grand quartets for violin, viola, guitar and cello. After his death were published Concerto in E with orchestral accompaniment; Concerto in B minor with Rondo a la Clochette, for violin and orchestra; the famous variations, Le Streghe (Witches' Dance); God Save the King, variations for violin and orchestra; Le Carnaval de Venise; Moto Perpetuo, for violin and orchestra; variations on Non piu mesta, from Rossini's La Cenerentola; variations on the air Di tanti palpiti; and sixty variations in all keys on the air Barucaba, for violin with piano and guitar accompaniment. The rest of his compositions, including a number of concertos and sonatas, have been lost. The original manuscripts of fourteen of his works were discovered at Perugia in 1907. His first composition was a sonata, written at the age of eight, which is among the lost. He promised to reveal the secret of his remarkable playing before he died, but as he did not it still remains a mystery. He used unusually thin strings, and tuned them differently for different effects, sometimes pitching them a semi-tone higher than ordinary. His chromatic and staccato passages were remarkable, and the way in which he combined the pizzicato and arco, plucking the strings with his left hand and at the same time using his bow with the right, was most astonishing. Some of these effects he revived, but the others resulted from experiments which he was constantly trying from a very early age; and though he had instruction, his system was mostly his own, eked out by steady practise until he was thirty years old. After that time it is said that he never touched his instrument to do anything but tune it, except at concerts and to play a few passages at rehearsals, where he was very severe with the orchestra, yet ready to praise them when they did well. This unique figure, whose career so much resembled a meteor, wrought a revolution in the violin world, and though he left no direct disciple his influence is seen in the French and Belgium Schools. By many he has been severely criticized as a charlatan, but Vieuxtemps, himself so renowned a violinist, who had heard the wonderful virtuoso, is reported to have said, "He is the greatest of us all."