Saturday, July 15, 2006

Paganini - The Original Superstar

An actual photograph of Paganini

Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy, on 27 October 1782, to Antonio and Teresa (née Bocciardo) Paganini. According to his biographer Peter Lichtenthal, Paganini first learned to play the mandolin from his father at the age of five, moved to the violin by the age of seven, and began composing before he turned eight. He gave his first public concert at the age of 12. In his early teens he studied under various teachers, including Giovanni Servetto and Alessandro Rolla, but he could not cope well with his success; at the age of 16 he was gambling and drinking. His career was saved by an unknown lady, who took him to her estate where he recovered and studied the violin for three years. He also played the guitar during this time.



He reappeared when he was 23, becoming director of music to Napoleon's sister Elisa Baciocchi, Princess of Lucca, when he wasn't touring. In early 1828 Nicolo began a six and half year tour that started in Vienna and ended in Paris in September 1834. During the two and half year period from August 1828 to February, 1831 he visited some 40 cities in Germany, Bohemia, and Poland. Performances in Vienna, Paris, and London were hailed widely, and his tour in 1832 through England and Scotland made him wealthy.

His playing of tender passages was so beautiful that his audiences often burst into tears, and yet, he could perform with such force and velocity that at Vienna one listener became half crazed and declared that for some days that he had seen the Devil helping the violinist.

Paganini was one of the first musicians, if not the first, to tour as a solo artist, without supporting musicians. He became one of the first "superstars" of public concertizing. He made a fortune as a touring musician, and was uncanny in his ability to charm an audience.


A pervading myth about Paganini is that he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his fearsome technique, a rumor which he delighted in and may have even started himself. During a performance his eyes would roll into the back of his head while playing, revealing the whites. His swaying stance, long unruly hair and thin, gaunt stature would add to this rumor. He played so intensely that women would faint and men would break out weeping.

Once his fame was established, Paganini’s life was a mixture of triumphs and personal excesses. He earned large sums of money but he indulged recklessly in gambling and other forms of dissipation. On one occasion he was forced to pawn his violin. Having requested the loan of a violin from a wealthy French merchant so that he could fulfill an engagement, he was given a Guarnerius violin by the merchant and later refused to take it back when the concert was over.

Paganini's signature violin is known as Il Cannone Guarnerius, its name given by Paganini to reflect the "cannon" sound it produced. Its strings are nearly on the same plane, as opposed to most violins, the strings of which are distinctly arched to prevent accidentally bowing extra strings. The stringing of the Cannone may have allowed Paganini to play on three or even four strings at once. It was Paganini’s treasure and was bequeathed to the people of Genoa by the violinist and is still carefully preserved in that city

Paganini’s genius as a player overshadows his work as a composer. He wrote much of his music for his own performances, music so difficult that it was commonly thought that he entered into a pack with the Devil. His compositions included 24 caprices (published in 1820) for unaccompanied violin that are among the most difficult works ever written for the instrument. He also challenged musicians with such compositions as his 12 sonatas for violin and guitar; 6 violin concerti; and 6 quartets for violin, viola, cello, and guitar.

In Paris in 1833, he commissioned a viola concerto from Hector Berlioz, who produced Harold in Italy for him, but Paganini never played it.

It is well known that Paganini rarely practiced after his 30th birthday. Those who were closely associated with him used to marvel at his brilliant technique and watched him closely to discover how he retained it.

In performance Paganini enjoyed playing tricks, like tuning one of his strings a semitone high, or playing the majority of a piece on one string after breaking the other three. He astounded audiences with techniques that included harmonics, double stops, pizzicato with the left as well as the right hand, and near impossible fingerings and bowings.

Antonia Bianchi, a singer who toured with Nicolo in 1825, bore him a son, Cyrus Alexander on July 23, 1825. Although they were never married, he did lavish affection on his son for the rest of his life.

Known as a gambler, he unsuccessfully attempted to open a gambling casino in Paris in 1838.

His health deteriorated due to cancer of the larynx. The disease caused him to lose the ability to speak, but he played his violin until his final hours. The last night before his death it is said he could be heard improvising wildly on his violin. He died in Nice on 27 May, 1840.

He left behind a series of sonatas, caprices, six violin concerti, string quartets, and numerous guitar works.

The orchestral parts of Paganini's works are polite, unadventurous in scoring, and supportive. Critics of Paganini find his concerti long-winded and formulaic: one fast rondo finale could often be switched for another. During his public career, the violin parts of the concertos were kept secret. Paganini would rehearse his orchestra without ever playing the full violin solos. At his death, only two had been published. Paganini's heirs have cannily released his concertos one at a time, each given their second debut, over many years, at well-spaced intervals. There are now six published Paganini violin concerti (although the last two are missing their orchestral parts). His more intimate compositions for guitar and string instruments, particularly the violin, have yet to become part of the standard repertoire.

Paganini developed the genre of concert variations for solo violin, characteristically taking a simple, apparently naïve theme, and alternating lyrical variations with a ruminative, improvisatory character that depended for effect on the warmth of his phrasing, with bravura extravagances that left his audiences gasping.


Here is his violin that was crafted by the famous maker, Guarneri del Gesu. The Il Cannone and has remained the property of the city of Genoa since 1851.

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