Classical Composer Biography : Niccolo Paganini
by Betty Fry
To get the feel of this most famous of all violinists and his music I am playing the Third Movement of his Violin Concerto No. 1 in E Flat major, Opus 6, and found it immediately recognizable as the work of Niccolo Paganini.
Listening to it I can see his ecstatic glee in the music he produced from his instrument, the blazing eyes, and the demonic energy which audiences the world over found so hypnotic.
From the first jumping notes of this movement, Paganini set himself, and his successors, a daunting task. The piece embodies the composers enthusiasm for dramatic orchestral effects, especially from the percussion section. Yet not one note from the soloist is drowned, because, as for some other of his own compositions, and especially this one, Paganini deliberately played in a flat key, which ensured that the soloist’s part rang out loud and clear against the rest of the orchestra.
Vivacious and intense, the dancing solo arrives against a backdrop of one of Paganini’s specialties, ‘pizzicato‘ strings (strings plucked individually), and barely pauses until the majestic finish.
Niccolo Paganini stands in a class of his own as both a violinist and showman, and like the virtuoso pianists of the century, – Chopin, Liszt, Sigismond Thalberg, and Adolph von Henselt, his fame was enormous. Like them he was feted and lionized wherever he went; and also like them , was always the equal of his patrons, never their servant.
Born in 1782 in Genoa, Italy he became the greatest violinist of his time. He began playing the violin at the age of seven, and his talent was quickly recognized by his father, a shipping clerk who, according to Niccolo, starved him if he did not work hard enough. Perhaps for this reason he rapidly mastered all its techniques.
Groomed to be a virtuoso performer and, with the example of Leopold Mozart very much in mind, he was made to undergo a strict training regime. This involved many hours of practice each day, first on the mandolin and then, from the age of seven, on the violin.
The young Niccolo showed great aptitude for the instrument and developed an astonishing performing technique.
At fifteen he made his first concert tour in northern Italy, and at twenty three he composed his famous 24 ‘Caprices’ for solo violin. But his fame and fortune was made as a travelling virtuoso.
A brilliant showman he tuned his violin to produce astonishing effects, and exploited pizzicato and staccato as never before. And in his relentless pursuit to master his instrument, he developed some stupendous techniques and skills that, at the time, were thought to be impossible.
He experimented in retuning his strings for creating special effects, and introduced the bouncing bow technique as well as left handed pizzicatoplucking. His technical wizardry made him a roaring success with the public. Today such techniques are second nature to every virtuoso violinist, but in Paganini’s time they were unknown and were considered by most to be superhuman.
Much of the early career of Paganini was spent in Lucca, at the court of Princess Elisa Baciocchi, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom it is said he had an affair.
In 1824 he began a liaison with the singer Antonia Bianchi, and in 1825 his son Achilles was born.
No composer’s life has been surrounded by as many rumours and legends as that of Paganini.
One story said that while in prison for killing his mistress, the Devil granted him total mastery of the violin… in exchange of course for his soul. And a cartoon was even published depicting his apparently manic playing having the power to raise the dead.
The Devil was also seen guiding the maestro’s fingers during performances and then whisking him away at the end. The seemingly superhuman talent he had for playing the violin no doubt did much to fuel such stories. And it is also likely that Paganini was well aware that such legends would help further his career, and therefore did his best to encourage them. The loss of all his teeth in 1828 also added a ghoulish touch to his appearance.
And it seems that as a showman Paganini’s efforts to promote his matchless talent knew no bounds. He would even cut a notch into his top violin string, so that when it broke he could amaze his audience by completing the piece on the remaining strings.
As he reached maturity Paganini realized he stood to make a fortune with his spectacular new style of playing, and that it made good sense to compose new pieces to show off his skills and artistry, rather than to embroider works from the existing repertoire.
Before he reached his eighteenth birthday he had already written a violin sonata, and although composition did not come easily to him, he managed to produce, in the course of a busy lifetime, a very large number of works for the violin. And although he composed to accommodate his own style of playing, his music does have a quality and a character that lifts it above the level of mere virtuoso trickery and meretricious effect.
All of it is well worth listening to as music, and not simply as highly advanced technical exercises.
He travelled by coach the length and breadth of Europe, including Britain, taking with him his young son Achilles, and visiting the remotest towns, often giving three concerts a week.
During his tour of Germany, Poland, and Bohemia in 1828 – 31, he visited 40 towns and cities. And undoubtedly this ceaseless travel, over work, and other excesses ruined his health and caused his early death. By 1828 he was described as ‘a heap of bones’, and after 1834 he gave few recitals.
With pulmonary tuberculosis added to several other ills, he returned to Parma, the scene of his first success as a virtuoso, where he bought a villa for his retirement, and undertook to reorganize the Court orchestra for the Archduchess. But his plans met with fierce opposition from the musicians and courtiers, and as a consequence came to nothing.
In his last years Paganini was frustrated, lonely, and desperately ill. He invested in a casino in Paris calling it ‘The Casino Paganini’ and then lost heavily when it was forced to close down.
In search of warmth and health he retired to Nice, where he died in 1840, leaving a large fortune to his sisters, his son Achilles, and his erstwhile lover Antonia Bianchi, together with twelve rare instruments which included eleven Stradivari, two Amati, and four Guarneri violins.
But if associations with the Devil brought fame to Paganini in his lifetime, they were also responsible for his cruel treatment after death. The church considered him a heretic and refused to allow him burial in consecrated soil because he had not received final Absolution.
When the ban was lifted five years later his remains were buried and dug up twice more before finding a final resting place at Genoa in 1876.
Paganini drew the masses wherever he appeared, and there was scarcely a town in all of Europe where he did not perform. Audiences, and most of the critics, raved about the miraculous, inconceivable playing of ‘the greatest violinist the world has known’. His personality was magnetic, his appearance fabulous, and his playing ‘great and incomparable’
And now to end I am playing his Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor. Named ‘La Campanella’ (meaning ‘little bell’) after its third movement, where the violin melody sounds like the ringing of a small bell, it has always been especially admired. The dazzling pace of this final movement was designed by Paganini to show off his remarkable virtuosity.
And once again, as I hear the music, I can also see the man.