Early Years. Niccolo Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy. His father was a minor artisan who may also have been a simple porter at the harbor of Genoa, but he was also an accomplished enough player of the mandolin to recognize that his young son had a special talent for music. By the time Paganini was twelve, his violin playing had surpassed that of his teachers in Genoa, and he was sent to Parma to study with the renowned violin teacher and composer Alessandro Rolla (1757–1841). By the time Paganini reached the age of twenty, his reputation for adroit violin technique had become wide-spread. In fact, Paganini played the violin like no one before him. As he performed more and more public concerts, he gained financial independence from his parents, and for three years Paganini, by his own admission, led a dissolute life. His health suffered badly, and he never fully recovered. During this period he is thought to have contracted syphilis, for which there was then no completely effective treatment. Despite his ailments, Paganini embarked on a life of playing concerts that became the sole source of his income. In this sense, Paganini is an example of an early Romantic musician, who—unlike his Classical predecessors—depended on the public marketplace, not on the largesse of aristocrats.
The Image. Paganini consciously cultivated an eccentric image, which combined with his almost “demonic” ability to play the violin to make him famous. As his renown spread, box-office receipts from his concerts grew. He wore his wavy blackhair long and invariably performed in a black coat, long trousers, and a colored waistcoat. Emaciated and gangly with long, spidery fingers and a playing posture that seemed almost contorted, he looked like some kind of black puppet. He kept his audiences waiting for his appearance, and as the curtains slowly parted, he emerged from the wings onto the stage to the accompaniment of a dramatic drum roll. As the virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811–1886) later observed, “The excitement he created wasso unusual, the magic that he practiced upon the imagination of his hearers so powerful, that they would not be satisfied with a natural explanation. Old tales of witches and ghost stories came into their minds; they attempted to explain the miracle of his playing by delving into his past, to interpret the wonder of his genius in a supernatural way; they even hinted that he had devoted his spirit to the Evil One, and that the fourth string of his violin was made from his wife’s intestines, which he himself had cut out.” Paganini’s sinister reputation was further secured in 1816, when he waaccused of impregnating a woman half his age and then trying to convince her to abort the fetus. Paganini claimed he was innocent and being framed because he was rich and famous, but nonetheless he was fined and sentenced to a brief term in prison.
Technique. Paganini’s virtuoso technique enthralled not only mass audiences but connoisseurs as well. As the great German violinist Louis Spohr (1784’1859) wrote later, “No instrumental player has ever captivated the Italians as he. ... one hears on all sides from unmusical people, that he is the true master in the art of witchcraft, and that he draws sounds out of the violin never heard before. The connoisseurs, on the contrary, say that his enormous facility with his left hand, his double-stops, and his excellence in all kinds of difficult pas-sages is undeniable; but they addthat the qualities which captivate the masses are spoiled by charlatanism....” Paganini did sometimes amaze his untutored audiences with an array of variations on one string, the G string, and for effect he removed the other three. Or he would play, as Spohr put it, “a peculiar kind of pizzicato for the left hand, without the help of the right hand or the bow.” Sometimes he would thrill his audiences with playing that imitated the voices of old women, the crowing of a rooster, the chirping of a cricket, the howling of a dog, or the braying of a donkey.
Fame, Fortune, and an International Tour. In the early 1820s Paganini played scores of concerts in various cities in northern Italy. He also contemplated a tour north of the Alps, but it was delayed by his ill health. In 1822 he contracted tuberculosis, which, combined with his syphilis, endangered his life. Though he never fully recovered, Paganini felt fit enough by 1828 to accept an invitation from Prince Klemens von Metternich to come to Vienna. Paganini’s performances spellbound Austrian audiences just as they had in Italy. He started a consumer craze. Women wore their hair “a la Paganini,” while men donned Paganini hats. Some bakeries sold loaves of bread shaped like violins. His tour also took him to Berlin, where a similar reception awaited him. A newspaper critic wrote that “never in my life have I heard such weeping [from a violin]. It was as if the torn heart of this suffering human being were bursting with its sorrow. .. . I never knew that music possessed such sounds. . . . When the final trill came, there was an explosion of joy.... The ladies leaned over the balustrade of the balcony to show they were applauding; the men stood on the chairs so as to see him better and call to him; I have never seen a Berlin audience like this.” Such popularity brought financial success. Paganini made so much money from his concerts in Vienna, Berlin, and then Warsaw that he had no need to play ever again. Yet, he continued t perform, touring France, England, and Ireland during the 1830s. During three months in early1832 he gave sixty-five concerts in thirty cities, keeping up a feverish pace that was far from unusual on his tours.
Later Years. Such a pace could hardly be sustained. In 1833 he returned to Italy, and in 1836—suffering from ill health and exhaustion—he ceased performing altogether. He then embarked on an entertainment business venture in Paris, the Casino Paganini, where he and his partners hoped to combine gambling, musical performances, and dancing in one venue. It failed miserably, and Paganini’s partners sued him for breach of contract, arguing that he had agreed to play there and had not. The French courts ruled against Paganini, levying a large fine on him. He refused to pay and moved to the South of France, his further passage to Italy delayed by his illnesses. Frail and suffering from tuberculosis of the larynx, he was unable to speak. Hounded by French legal officials, he died in May 1840. Paganini’s sinister reputation dogged him even after death. Claiming there was no evidence that Paganini had any religious beliefs at all, the bishop of Nice would not allow his body to be buried in consecrated ground. His embalmed body was stored in the cellar of the house where he had died, and then taken two months later to a leper hospital in Villefranche. Its voyage was not yet over; from there it was moved to an olive-oil factory, and five years after his death, it was moved yet again to the Villa Gaione in Italy after the duchess of Parma gave permissionfor the legendary virtuoso to be buried there. Thirty years later Paganini’s remains were finally moved to consecrated ground.
Alan Kendall, Paganini: A Biography (London: Chappell, 1982).
Henry Raynor, Music and Society since 1815 (New York: Schocken Books, 1976).