Niccolo Paganini, who is considered the greatest violin virtuoso
of all time, was probably one of the most erratic figures
of all time. Through his numerous performances all over Europe,
he enthralled and inspired every audience, including musicians
of his era.
Franz Schubert was mystified by him, Rossini was appalled by
him, and Meyerbeer followed him from one concert to another
not being able to get enough of his playing. Berlioz has described
Paganini as "one of those artists of whom it must be said: 'They
are because they are and not because others were before them'."
In Paris, Liszt came under Paganini's spell and was so stimulated
by his fabulous technical virtuosity, determined to accomplish
similar miracles with the piano, and pushed his technique to
the highest limits.
Paganini was considered a genius, a god, a devil worshiper,
anything but that of reality. There was a rumor, for instance,
that when Niccolo was only six, his mother made a pact with
the Devil and is said to have traded his soul for a career as
the greatest violinist in the world.
news graphic from the Bettman Archive depicting the spellbinding
effect of Paganini's virtuosity on the opposite sex
Paganini was a legend. In fact, he was so amazing no audience
could succumb to any type of disturbance during the trance he created through his musical
renditions. After borrowing a Guarnerius violin for a single
concert, the lender begged him to keep it for fear of coming
under Paganini's supernatural powers. He also won a Stradivarius
violin in a similar manner by playing a technical piece by sight
which was insisted that nobody could perform even after preparation.
Besides his superb technical ability, his cadaverous appearance
led to myths of all sorts. He was tall and thin, had a long
nose, a pale and long-drawn face with hollow cheeks, thin lips
that seemed to curl into a sardonic smile, and piercing eyes
like flaming coals. The rumor was spread that he was the son
of the Devil. It was difficult to think much otherwise as Paganini
dressed in black, played weaving and flailing, with skinny fingers
cavorting over the strings, and contorted shoulders giving him
the appearance of a giant flapping bat. Paganini's every movement
and every tone emanating from his violin seemed to support the
300-year-old myth that the violin was the "Devil's consort"
and that the violinist himself was the Devil. Some people, when
in his presence, would actually make the sign of the cross to
rid themselves of what they believed were his evil powers. He
was once forced to publish letters from his mother to prove
he had human parents.
Whenever and wherever he played, he aroused tenor and awe in
his audiences. There was the rumor that a satanic figure, a
double of Paganini, always appeared in the audience in sombre
black with the same long black locks, burning eyes, and sardonic
smile. Or else the figure appeared on the stage at Paganini's
side dressed in a red cloak and pantaloons, with horns, hooves,
and a tail to guide Paganini's bow arm through a performance.
It was believed that this figure raised a thunderstorm, during
a concert and conducted lightening to the free end of the bow,
and at another performance he actually took possession of Paganini's
body. In spite of his appearance and the suspicions, however,
he was worshiped wherever he went.
All parts of Europe were delighted with his music and women
were spellbound at the sound of his hypnotic melodies. There
was another rumor that he was the greatest womanizer of all
time and that he killed a woman, imprisoned her soul in his
violin, and used parts of her intestines as an eternal source
of gut for his strings. The unearthly screams of women were
sometimes heard coming from his violin as he played on stage.
Paganini was born of a poor family in 1782 at Genoa and showed
a natural talent at a very early age. His father wanted his
son to be a genius and did everything in his power to make that
come true. He stood by him consistently when he practiced disciplining
him severely with a rod that was seldom spared. His father was
quite successful in his persistence for at the age of eight,
he played a Pie yel Concerto in a Genoa church. He so enthralled
the audience, that his playing became in great demand for local
social gatherings. His teachers at that time were Giovanni Servetto
and Giacomo Costa. When he turned nine, he made an official
debut in a Genoa concert auditorium playing his own composition,
La Carmagnole which is a theme and variations. By age thirteen,
he was known throughout the town as the "wonderchild."
He continued with his studies in Leghorn with Ferdinando Paer
and in Parma with Alessandro Rolla, which began his first extended
concert tour. He succeeded rapidly in the cities of Lombardy
playing many of his own electrifying compositions.
At the age of seventeen, he was on his own. He no longer needed
financial assistance from his father and broke away assured
of his talent. Freed for the first time of his father's strictness,
he gave in to his two passions - women and gambling -- to which
he was thenceforth to be addicted.
At the turn of the century, he disappeared from the public eye.
It is generally believed that he fell in love with a Guscan
noble lady and lived with her at her chateau. At this time,
he abandoned the violin temporarily because of his mistress'
wishes and concentrated his virtuoso and creative gifts on the
guitar. He also composed several pieces and chamber works for
the guitar. But, after three years, he returned to his native
city to study, play, and compose at full intensity.
The most amazing stories were heard about his performances.
The most famous is of the concert in Leghorn. When a string
of his violin snapped in an intricate passage, the audience
began expressing derision. But when Paganini continued to play
the piece on three strings instead of four, the derision turned
to wonder and awe. From then on Paganini would not hesitate
to use this devise on purpose to further entrance his audience.
Often he would use worn strings so that he could complete his
performance on three or even two strings when they snapped.
Later he got the idea to write entire pieces for a single string,
such as the Fantasia on the G String.
By 1813, Paganini became the greatest violinist of his day and
the most worshiped. He spent the next decade and a half performing
numerous concerts throughout Italy. His health, however, was
turning bad which limited his touring voyages to his own country.
When he finally left his country to perform in other parts of
Europe, the concert halls were filled immediately and crowds
rushed to see for themselves the creature that was so talked
about. In 1828, he was in Vienna where he hypnotized his audience.
Everyone was talking about him. Snacks and billiard shots were
named after him.
After Vienna, he traveled extensively throughout Germany and
in 1831, he arrived in Paris, his ultimate goal. In Paris, there
was a study made of him because his unusual appearance created
an abnormal "presence" about him. Up until then there was no
challenge as to the idea that he was possessed by the devil
or was some sort of god himself. Through this study, however,
it was found that his physical characteristics were linked to
his mental abilities; the same qualities which characterize
In his tour to England and Scotland, Paganini made the largest
sum of money that any performing artist had earned up to that
time in a single trip.
He returned to Italy and purchased an estate near Parma where
he made several concert appearances despite his suffering from
poor health. He lost some of his fortune in a gambling house
named after him, thus making him restless and weary. He started
coughing and eventually lost his voice completely in 1838. He
went to Nice for a rest cure - but neither rested nor was cured.
He spent his last hours improvising feverishly on his violin,
defying his rapidly waning strength. Finally, he died on May
For five years the Church, disturbed as to his orthodoxy, refused
his body interment in consecrated ground, and so it was laid
to rest in a village graveyard on his own estate. The people
in nearby towns use to say that every night they heard the sounds
of a ghostly violin emanating from that coffin. The legend of
Paganini's life lasted until the very end.