Niccolo Paganini (1782–1840)

Niccolo Paganini marks the beginning of the Golden Age of String Playing.He took violin technique to new heights and paved the way for many violin composers such as Sarasate. He was described as a “phenomenon” and was instrumental in the revival and popularisation of many violin techniques including lefthand pizzacato, harmonics and agility in the righthand and bow.

His impression on the musical scene and the development of the Romantic era, created a vehicle for the great musical personalities of the Golden Age.

Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy. His father an unsuccessful trader supplemented the family’s income with playing music on the mandolin. At the age of five, Paganini started learning the mandolin from his father, and moved to the violin by the age of seven. His musical talents were quickly recognized, earning him numerous scholarships for violin lessons. The young Paganini studied under various local violinists, but his progress quickly outpaced their abilities. His father then took him to Parma where he studied for a brief time with Ferdinando Paer and Gasparo Ghiretti.

In 1796 the French invaded Northern Italy under Napoleon. Paganini moved to Lucca and was appointed first violin but he also carried on freelancing. His fame as a violinist was matched only by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer. In 1805 the region Lucca, where Paganini was living, was ceded to Napoleon’s siter Elisa Baciocchi. Paganini became a violinist for the Baciocchi court, while giving private lessons to her husband. During his time at the Boccherini court, Paganini composed his 24 caprices which have had profound influences on the evolution of violin techniques. During this period he also composed the majority of the solo pieces, duo-sonatas, trios and quartets for the guitar. 

Although known throughout the area, Paganini was not well known in Europe. His first break came from an 1813 concert which took place in Milan. The concert was a great success, and as a result Paganini began to attract the attention of other prominent musicians across Europe. His early encounters with Charles Philippe Lafont and Louis Spohr created intense rivalry. 

In 1828 his fame spread across Europe as he toured, starting in Vienna and continuing through Germany, Poland, Bohemia, France and Britain.

His technical ability and his willingness to display it received much critical acclaim. He performed his own compositions which were technically imaginative and expanded the timbre of the instrument, as well as modified versions of famous pieces of that time. Sounds of different musical instruments and animals were often imitated. One such composition was a solo piece Duetto Amoroso, in which the sighs and groans of lovers were intimately depicted on the violin. He had exceptionally long fingers and was capable of playing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, a feat that is still considered impossible by today's standards. His seemingly unnatural ability may have been a result of Marfan syndrome.

In September 1834, Paganini put an end to his concert career and returned to Genoa. Contrary to popular beliefs involving him wishing to keep his music and techniques secret, Paganini devoted his time to the publication of his compositions and violin methods. He also had a small number of students.

Throughout his life, Paganini was no stranger to chronic illnesses, as he suffered fromMarfan syndrome. In addition, his frequent concert schedule, as well as his extravagant lifestyle, took their toll on his health. He was diagnosed with syphilis as early as 1822, and his remedy, which included mercury and opium, came with serious health and psychological side effects. In 1834, while still in Paris, he was treated for tuberculosis. Though his recovery was reasonably quick, his future career was marred with frequent cancellations due to various health problems, from the common cold to depression.

 In 1836, Paganini returned to Paris to set up a casino. Its immediate failure left him in financial ruins, and he auctioned off his personal effects, including his musical instruments, to recoup his losses. 

In 1838, he left Paris for Marseilles and, after a brief stay, travelled to Nice where his condition worsened. In May of 1840, the Bishop of Nice sent Paganini a local parish priest to perform the Last Rites. Paganini, assuming the sacrament to be premature, refused. One week later, on 27 May 1840, Paganini died from internal hemorrhaging before a priest could be summoned. On these grounds, and his widely rumored association with the devil, his body was denied a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years and an appeal to the Pope before the body was allowed to be transported to Genoa, but was still not buried. His remains were finally laid to rest in 1876 in a cemetery in Parma.  

Paganini has been the inspiration of many prominent violinsits and composers and “La Campanella” and the A minor caprice (N.24) have been an object of interest for a number of people including, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name but a few.

Paganini's instruments

Paganini was in possession of a number of fine string instruments. More legendary than these were the circumstances under which he obtained (and lost) some of them. While Paganini was still a teenager in Livorno, a wealthy businessman named Livron lent him a violin, made by the master luthier Giuseppe Guarneri, for a concert. Livron was so impressed with Paganini's playing that he refused to take it back. This particular violin would come to be known as Il Cannone Guarnerius. On a later occasion in Parma, he won another valuable violin (also by Guarneri) after a difficult sight-reading challenge brought on by a man named Pasini.


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