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Paganini

Category: Musician or composer

Niccolò (or Nicolò) Paganini (1782 – 1840) was an Italian violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer.

He was one of the most celebrated violin virtuosi of his time, and left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique. His Caprice No. 24 in A minor, Op. 1, is among the best known of his compositions, and has served as an inspiration for many prominent composers. 

Overall, he composed  24 Caprices a  number of solo pieces, duo-sonatas, trios and quartets for the guitar and variations, including Le Streghe, The Carnival of Venice, and Nel cor più non mi sento.

Paganini composed his own works to play exclusively in his concerts. Thus he composed for himself, knowing his own capabilities.  The Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis once referred to Paganini as a 'phenomenon '. Though some of the techniques he employed were already known, he introduced a large number of new technical innovations.  He was also a great showman, a born entertainer.  Some of the innovations were made possible because he had  exceptionally long fingers and was capable of playing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, an extraordinarily difficult feat even by today's standards. 'His seemingly unnatural ability may have been a result of Marfan syndrome'.

Portrait of Nicolò Paganini by Edwin Landseer.
Pen and brown ink, 1831.

Paganini's compositions have been described as “technically imaginative”, but this does not do him justice. 

He was inspired much of the time and produced startling works sometimes incorporating considerable humour – as if helped by Pan himself.  Sounds of different musical instruments and animals were often imitated. One such composition was titled Il Fandango Spanolo (The Spanish Dance), which featured a series of humorous imitations of farm animals.

Even more outrageous was a solo piece Duetto Amoroso, in which the sighs and groans of lovers were intimately depicted on the violin. There survives a manuscript of the Duetto, which has been recorded. The existence of the Fandango is known only through concert posters”.

Paganini was a child prodigy.  At the age of five, he started learning the mandolin from his father, and moved to the violin by the age of seven. His musical talents were quickly recognized, earning him numerous scholarships for violin lessons.  In 1801, Paganini, aged 18 at the time, was appointed first violin of the Republic of Lucca, but a substantial portion of his income came from freelancing. “His fame as a violinist was matched only by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer”.

Daniel Maclise - Niccolo Paganini 1831

In 1813, he gave a successful concert at La Scala in Milan. As a result, Paganini began to attract the attention of other musicians across Europe.

His fame spread with a concert tour that started in Vienna in August, 1828, stopping in every major European city in Germany, Poland, and Bohemia until February, 1831 in Strasbourg. This was followed by tours in Paris and Britain.

His technical ability and his willingness to display it received much critical acclaim. In addition to his own compositions, theme and variations being the most popular, Paganini also performed modified versions of works (primarily concertos) written by his contemporaries

What inspired him?

Although one of his inspirations was clearly his great love for women, I think his illnesses may have had a longer more important effect.

Niccolo Paganini 1782-1840 Playing the Violin

by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Throughout his life, Paganini was no stranger to chronic illnesses. Although no definite medical proof exists, he was reputed to have been affected by Marfan syndrome.  In addition, his frequent concert schedule, as well as his extravagant lifestyle, took their toll on his health.

He was diagnosed with syphilis as early as 1822, and his remedy, which included mercury [mercury poisoning] and opium, came with serious health and psychological side effects. In 1834, while still in Paris, he was treated for tuberculosis.

Though his recovery was reasonably quick, his future career was marred with frequent cancellations due to his health problems.

In 1836, Paganini returned to Paris to set up a casino. Its immediate failure left him in financial ruins, and he auctioned off his personal effects, including his musical instruments, to recoup his losses. On Christmas of 1838, he left Paris for Marseilles and, after a brief stay, travelled to Nice where his condition worsened. In May 1840, the Bishop of Nice sent Paganini a local parish priest to perform the Last Rites.

A week later, on 27 May 1840, Paganini died from internal hemorrhaging before a priest could be summoned. Because of this, the Church denied his body a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years and an appeal to the Pope before the Church let his body be transported to Genoa, but it was still not buried. His remains were finally laid to rest in 1876, in a cemetery in Parma. In 1893, the Czech violinist,  František Ondříček, persuaded Paganini's grandson, Attila, to allow a viewing of the violinist's body. After this truly tragic ending to the life of a great composer, Paganini's body was finally reinterred in a new cemetery in Parma in 1896.

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