Paganini, Part 1

I was fascinated by Paganini, to say the least, as I delved into my Master of Music degree research.  He is a household name for any violinist, indeed any musician.  One look at his list of compositions and their frequency of performance is impressive enough.  And to look at the individual compositions provides a sense of awe and wonder as the amount of ink blackens the page –Lots and lots of notes!  Lots and lots of ledger lines!  Lots of technical nightmares, mixed in with singing lyrical passages full of heart and drama.  I share here, in parts, my initial research.

Some of the greatest musicians lived before sound recordings were a possibility.  One’s familiarity with a famous performer in history comes solely from writings and compositions that have been left behind.  It is quite remarkable, therefore, that without any recording the incredible violinist, Niccolò Paganini, has remained a household name to this day.   His popularity gave way to sweeping changes in the Romantic Era for performers and composers alike as he became a super-hero virtuoso, far surpassing the fame of all other performers before him, and giving a standard or virtuosity that performers and composers alike sought to attain and expand thereafter.  His life and rise to fame tell the story of his influence.  It was Robert Schumann who aptly exclaimed that Paganini was

the turning-point in the history of virtuosity.”

An inscription over door of Paganini’s birthplace reads, “High venture sprang from this humble place.  In this house on 27 October 1782 Niccolò Paganini was born to adorn Genoa and delight the world.”   At his birth, his mother claimed to have prophetic dreams of a violinist playing in a burning theater with a horned guitarist.  These stories stoked the fire of mysticism that followed him throughout his life.  His skill was so great that many supposed that he had traded his soul in a deal with the Devil.  He was called a “fallen angel,” the “magician of the south,” and “witch’s brat” to name a few.  His physical appearance also added to suspicions as to the source of his talent.

Drawing of Paganini (1819) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

A music critic in Leipzig wrote of Paganini in 1829:

This man with the long black hair and the pale countenance opens to us 

with his violin a world which we had never imagined, except perhaps in dreams.  

There is in his appearance something so supernatural that one looks for a glimpse 

of a cloven hoof or an angel’s wing. 

At the young age of five, Paganini was introduced to music by his father who had some amateur experience on the mandolin.  After two years, Paganini received his first violin.  He recorded that “within a few months I was able to play any music at sight.”   Not only did he play skillfully, he also began to compose his own music.  He told biographers later in his life, “Even before I was eight years old, I wrote a sonata under the supervision of my father.”  In 1793, when he was just eleven, he gave his first public performance.  His father, an unsuccessful shipping agent in Genoa, quickly realized the possible income that Paganini could bring to the family.  Adolescent boys were often employed in Genoa by the theater orchestra.  Paganini recounted:

I had my violin in my hand from morn till night.  It would be hard to conceive

of a stricter father.  If he didn’t think I was industrious enough, he compelled me

to redouble my efforts by making me go without food so that I had to endure a

great deal physically and my health began to give way.

His father continued this close supervision for the next six years, demanding ten hours of daily practice and forcing Paganini to perform several money-making concerts.

Paganini’s ability to play well beyond the skill of adult violinists finally persuaded his father to seek a qualified teacher to further instruct the boy, and secure employment as a violinist.  His father chose theater violinist Giovanni Cervetto to fill the role.  Cervetto was able to teach him the traditional method of bowing and introduced him to the lyric theater.  This teacher-student relationship lasted only a few months.  Cervetto then sent Paganini to the opera composer, Francesco Gnecco, who taught Paganini lessons in composition and music training.  Paganini was then passed on to Genoa’s most prominent violinist, Giacomo Costa.  Paganini reflected later in his life that Costa’s principles seemed unnatural to him.  Costa only taught Paganini about thirty lessons, but had him performing around Genoa several times a week.  This demanding schedule prepared him for a performance of the difficult Pleyel concerto in 1794.

Despite all of Paganini’s early instruction and lessons, he gives the most credit to hearing violinist, Auguste Frédéric Durand,  perform in Genoa in 1795.  Paganini allegedly told a Belgian music theorist and historian that many of his best and most brilliant effects were a result of having heard this incredible player.  From this point on, Paganini wanted to compose his own music, and began, at the age of thirteen, to base his concert repertoire on his own compositions.  His works displayed his unmatched virtuosity to the greatest extent possible.  When he did perform the works of others composers, he would add his own movements or passages in order to enhance his showmanship.

I want to maintain my own individuality and no one can blame me for this since it seems to satisfy the public.”

This is Part 1 of 4, Niccolò Paganini: The Virtuoso, and His Impact on Romantic Era Instrumentalists and Composers.

I would love to hear any further insights and facts my readers have.



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