The Mystique Of Niccolò Paganini

I know of no composer whom is steeped in mystique nor shrouded in mystery to rival Paganini. Frankly, after reading numerous biographies on the man written from his period of time up to present, I’m stunned there hasn’t been a movie. I mean A MOVIE! A blockbuster ya know, like Amadeus. I loved that film, especially the honesty of it. I digress… The point I’m attempting here is the sheer fascination I had with the tales of Paganini. Some of the works I read appeared absolute fantasy while others, like ‘Paganini’ by Leslie Sheppard and Dr. Herbert A. Axelrod (ISBN 0-87666-618-7) were comprehensive and based on empirical, factual data from the letters of Paganini himself to his longtime friend.  Seldom did the two meet but when they did, it was explosive to say the least.

Let’s start from the beginning,

from Wikipedia-

Niccolò Paganini, as painted by John Whittle in 1836

“Niccolò (or Nicolò) Paganini (27 October 1782 – 27 May 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.”

Legend has it that young Niccolò was not a healthy child and was in constant battle for his life.  Apparently, the child would fall into states of delirium and even at one point fell into a coma.  Not knowing of said condition at the period of time in which they lived, the family assumed the child had died. As was custom, the family placed the “remains” of young Paganini in a casket for viewing in their home.  After all family and friends had gathered with their priest to begin the funeral, the child moved and awoke from his slumber frightening the lot.

Another eerie account of Paganini’s early life -of which there are numerous variations- is the tale of Teresa (née Bocciardo) Paganini, his mother.

One evening while amidst a dream, Paganini’s mother dreamed of a battle between an angel and a demon over the life of her son.  After defeating the demon, the angel offered Teresa a blessing on young Niccolò.  The blessing;  he was to be bestowed the gift of her choice in which she replied, ” I want him to be the greatest violinist in the world.”  Another variation is the angel appeared during the pain of childbirth to Teresa and promised the blessing to her son.

By the time Paganini was eleven, his wily father had kept him fooled into believing he was only nine years old.  This was to live up to the prodigy criteria established by a very young Wolfie Mozart.  Paganini’s father, like Mozart’s was also a musician.  Although Leopold Mozart was a composer as well. Antonio Paganini was a mandolinist which worked well in the fact that the tuning is the same for both mandolin and violin. As most of Niccolò’s formative musical years were spent with his father, in his mid-thirties Paganini spoke of him,

” He soon recognized my natural talents, and I owe to him the first fundamental principles to my art…one can hardly imagine a stricter father; if I did not seem industrious enough, he would compel me to redouble my efforts by hunger. I suffered very much physically, and my health began to give way, and yet there was no need for such severity.  I exhibited great enthusiasm for my instrument, and studied it unceasingly in order to discover new, and hitherto unsuspected effects.”


 A Legend Is Born

One of my favorite “Young Paganini” tales is the story of his father’s frustration in finding a legitimate mentor for the lad.  By age fourteen, Paganini had surpassed all known skilled violinists and instructors in Italy.   His precocious sight-reading powers were quickly casting his abilities as prodigious, perhaps legendary.  Paganini’s visit to Italian composer Allessandro Rolla’s villa is one of my favorites.  Maestro Rolla (1757-1841) was sick in bed and refusing visitors when Antonio “arranged” his son’s lesson.  Rolla’s servant had allowed the young violinist into the foyer and proceeded to the Maestro’s room when Paganini began to sight read a piece on the table.  After telling the servant to refuse the boy, Rolla quickly changed his stance after hearing his latest and most difficult piece performed meticulously and called for the boy.  “There is nothing I can do for you.  You have sight read my life’s work perfectly.  Go study composition from Ferdinando Paer.” was Rolla’s advice according to some.  Others say he did study under Rolla but refused to admit it later due to a falling out of sorts, usually due to the fact that most of the teachers were completely close-minded to new, innovative techniques on the instrument.  As a matter of fact, it seems most innovative ideas are “accepted” in this manner.  Galileo was a “heretic” to the Catholic Church.  Jimi Hendrix was harassed by an engineer at the BBC for “feedback issues on ‘Purple Haze’.”

The more things change…

Composed For One String!

Speaking of such diabolical ideas, above is a piece which Paganini composed for one string, the “G”.  You see, this man was the consumate showman.  After years of performing for audiences, he realized that a solo violinist in the eyes of his peers was at a terrible disadvantage when they broke a string.  He probably chuckled to himself when they gasped in shock after his sometimes unrelenting attacks on the strings suffered a casualty.  Being astute, he was always able to complete the performance unerringly.  I suppose that’s how the above piece was born.  It was composed at Lucca and dedicated to Napoleon I for the occasion of his birthday in 1813.  The cool thing is, Paganini sabotaged three of the strings on his instrument prior to performance of the piece.  PagaHoudini!  By partially sawing through the “E”, “A” and “D” strings, leaving the sole “G” string to finish the piece for which it was written, he created an intense performance.  Sixteenth notes in the finale to boot.

Paganini’s pyrotechnics on the violin forged these images into artist’s reprensentations.

Someone once said, if mankind doesn’t understand something they blame it on God or the Devil.  This may be the case with one Niccolò Paganini.  Because he virtually patented techniques like artificial harmonics and was a master of counterpoint -or the ability to sound like two instruments at once- it stands to reason people were afraid of him.  He caught on quick as well and being the consumate performer, built upon the image they perceived of him.  First hand accounts and sketches of his performances were saturated with supernatural overtones like, “The Devil guides his bow…” or ” He left in a black coach driven by emissaries of Hell on a road that does not exist.”

Hand sketch from an attendee of Maestro Paganini's later performances
Hand sketch from an attendee of Maestro Paganini’s later performances.
The Witches Dance
“The Witches Dance” -a 19th century sheet music transcription for piano forte’ cover

Paganini’s appearance was tall for the era and gaunt with a cadaverous white complexion and long black curly hair.  His fingers were also reported to have been extraordinarily long and thin as well.  These would prove to be attributes to “the show”.   His early obsession for his instrument and his ability to think “outside the box”, had pushed him to heights none had seen before.  When combined with his uncanny performance abilities and mysterious image, the result was higher admission fees for sold out performances internationally throughout his career.

Pags Sketch 2Pags Sketch 1

An endearing legacy remains, “Paganini’s 24 Caprices” and “Moto Perpetuo” are criteria by which virtuosi are judged to this day.

Paganini Concert Germany

Violin duels were the pride of each country on the continent of Europe particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Each country would compete for the best violinist in the land and send him to an international duel.  England, France and Italy were the usual finalists in the international duel and Paganini was Italy’s hero.  He performed a number of years, undefeated.  It is claimed his technique for victory was to insist he perform last and he would recite all his competitor’s most difficult passages by ear after hearing them only once during their performances.

Another story comes from a British violinist due to compete with Paganini.  Prior to the competition and frustrated with the Maestro’s uncanny abilities, the man snuck up to Paganini’s door to peer through the keyhole and see what “Paganini’s Secret” was all about.  He saw the Maestro sitting on the edge of his bed  merely fingering his instrument.  He never touched his bow to prepare.

Paganini 1830's

To be continued…

599 thoughts on “The Mystique Of Niccolò Paganini

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