Paganini’s influence on composers and performers was remarkable and decisive. Upon hearing Paganini perform in Vienna, Joseph Bohm was convinced that Paganini was the greatest virtuoso that had ever lived. Bohm’s experience convinced him not to seek greater achievement, but to retire from performing all together. This was not the decisive effect that Paganini had on all that heard him, however.
In Paris in 1831, the young pianist Franz Liszt, went to one of Paganini’s performances. Liszt, who had a natural tendency to be showy, was spurred on to new heights upon hearing Paganini. He was thunderstruck, and immediately sought to transfer Paganini’s effects to the piano. Not only did he model himself on the manner in which Paganini performed, his long blond hair and dramatic facial expressions imitating the black hair and fiery passion of Paganini, but Liszt was also profoundly influenced by the possibilities of composition for his own instrument. Liszt followed Paganini by composing his own fantasies or variations on popular opera pieces or orchestral works, making them more showy and elaborate. He was one of the first of several composers influenced by Paganini to compose his own version of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, known as Grandes Etudes de Paganini, as well as Etudes d’exécution transcendante d’après des Caprices de Paganini (see fig.2). He made them so monumentally difficult that he was the only one who could perform them at the time, and very few pianist can conquer them today. Liszt, so inspired by Paganini’s virtuosity, did for the piano what Paganini had done for the violin.
The Romantic era had turned into a time that demanded limit-pushing virtuosity in all the musical arts. Liszt was not alone in following in Paganini’s footsteps. Henri Herz, a very popular pianist with a lighter technique than the heroic Liszt, pleased audiences for several decades on the principles of outstanding virtuosity that Paganini had conditioned the public to expect of performers.
The expectation of virtuosic achievement extended beyond violin and piano. The bel canto style of singing, which had been emphasized by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, shifted to a more dramatic technique to match the virtuosic feats that were being accomplished on other instruments. Harold Schonberg commented that “such great singers as Giovanni Rubini, Luigi Lablache, Maria Malibran, Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient, Pauline Viadot-Garcia, Gilbert-Louis Cuprez and Enrico Tamberlik were as popular as the pianists and violinists.” Beginning with Paganini, these great performers had an immense influence on composers of the nineteenth century. Prior to this revolution, the great composers had all been gifted performers as well. There now seemed to be a new age of great performers who only performed the works of others. Examples of such a pure virtuosos are Hans von Bulow and Karl Tausig.
Many composers used Paganini and his compositions as direct inspiration for their own works. In addition to Liszt’s Grandes Etudes de Paganini and Etudes d’exécution transcendante d’après des Caprices de Paganini, there are Chopin’s Etudes, Schumann’s Studien nach Carpicen von Paganini, Op. 3, and Etudes symphoniques. Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and others later used the famous 24th Caprice as a theme for extended piano works. Chopin, in particular, was greatly influenced by Paganini and sought to extend the “frontiers of keyboard technique.” Focusing on Paganini’s roots, Chopin composed Souvenir de Paganini for solo piano, based on a folk song from Venice, Italy.
Despite his heroic status and the sweeping changes he brought to performers and composers alike, Paganini’s final years were not spent in happiness and luxury. After a failed business attempt in the casino industry, his deteriorating health required his retirement to Italy in 1834. He died of cancer of the larynx just six years later, leaving his estate to his only son, Achille, whom he loved. Believing the rumors that he was in league with the Devil and a heretic, the Catholic church denied his burial near a church. In 1845 his remains were moved from the French Riviera to a private plot in Parma. They were then reburied in 1876 in a Parma cemetery. Paganini left his famous violin, the “Cannon”, to the city of Genoa where it is on display to this day.
Niccolò Paganini’s broad impact on the Romantic era through performers and composers alike stands in stark contrast to the humble circumstances in which he was born. In today’s terms, he was assuredly a child prodigy who found his voice through the violin at a young age. His unsurpassed abilities in expanding the realm of what was possible on the violin changed the ambitions of other instrumentalists and composers who witnessed his performances, and continues to inspire and challenge musicians today. Despite there being no possible recordings of this great artist, exploring the possibilities for any instrument will ultimately lead back to his uncanny skill and bravura.