From 1810 on, Paganini worked as a free agent of sorts, travelling across Europe and gaining superstar status among concert-goers and the general public alike. After a debut concert at La Scala, Milan, a music critic recorded:
He is without question the foremost and greatest violinist in the world.
His playing is truly inconceivable. He performs certain passage-work,
leaps, and double stops that have never been heard from any violinist.”
As he travelled, always performing, his gaunt figure ignited suspicions as to the source of his abilities. Even his family name seemed to point people to the “Pagan” roots of his fame. He became quite ill with what was likely syphilis, and began taking large and regular doses of mercury and opium to manage the symptoms. The side-effects of such a treatment were deterioration of eyesight and tremors. Despite this deterioration, he continued to wow audiences with his effects and performances. It was during this time of failing health that he finally travelled outside of Italy and began to have an impact on more than his local public.
In 1828, he accepted a long-standing invitation by an Austrian chancellor, Count Metternich, to come to Vienna. His impact on the city is difficult to truly measure. Rumors of his talent had circulated outside of Italy for nearly twenty years which meant that his concerts were filled to capacity at once. The price for a ticket was five times the going rate, and the sum was quickly dubbed a “Paganiner”.
Looking gaunt and pallid for his first concert held in the Imperial Ballroom, he performed his Violin Concerto in B Minor. Faber writes:
Its opening movement makes huge demands on both instrument and player,
alternating passages of intense lyricism with bravura displays of the
virtuoso’s art: flying staccato,amazingly rapid double stopping, trills in runs
or maintained on one string while another carries the tune. Paganini…added
a level of technical difficulty that only a violinist with perfect intonation and
bowing control, and apparently superhuman dexterity, could achieve.”
Franz Schubert, who was a regular at Paganini’s Vienna concerts, said of the second movement of the concerto that it was as though he heard an angel sing. The third movement has become a main exhibition piece for violinists even today, and was received with great enthusiasm. This level of virtuosity had never been seen before.
His second Vienna concert, just two weeks later, was attended by all of the Imperial Family that were in Vienna. The hall was filled three hours prior to the concert and many thousands had to be turned away. For the next three months, he performed constantly. His marketing power was utilized by manufacturers of snuff, ties, pipes, napkins, billiard cues and powder boxes. With his international fame established, he continued to tour throughout Europe with much acclaim. He performed in Berlin, Warsaw, London, and Paris, astonishing audiences everywhere.
Part 4 will speak to the effect Paganini had on musicians and composers.