Niccolò Paganini: dazzling Italian virtuoso and violin technique pioneer

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

One of the most dazzling musical showmen of all time, the great Italian violinist and composer Paganini cast a spell over all those who heard his music, as Julian Haylock explains

Paganini turned the world of music inside out. Nothing could be taken for granted anymore as he unleashed torrential violinistic outbursts of electrifying virtuosity, designed to bring an audience to a fever pitch of excitement.

‘I never knew that music contained such sounds!’ reported the great German poet Heinrich Rellstab, following Paganini’s 1829 Berlin debut. ‘He spoke, he wept, he sang! Paganini is the incarnation of desire, scorn, madness and burning pain.’ Berlioz likened the Italian’s impact to that of a blazing comet, while Goethe fell back exhausted following a performance that ‘hit me like a meteor, yet I was quite unable to unfathom its mysteries.’

What was so special about Paganini?

Paganini’s contortionist innovations were facilitated by hands of remarkable flexibility, as a result of his suffering from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. This enabled him to negotiate the violin at phenomenal speed without the inconvenience of having to constantly change position. It also meant he could achieve huge intervallic stretches with unprecedented ease.

He widely employed harmonics (a ghostly effect produced by barely touching the strings) and high-speed left-hand pizzicato, whereby the upper fingers of the left hand pluck the string while the lower ones hold down the notes.

He also devised all manner of fiendish chords and double-stops (two notes played simultaneously), articulated by every conceivable bow stroke, ranging from a super-smooth legato to a series of rebounding ricochet notes taken in a single down- or (even harder) up-bow. Little wonder that Mendelssohn once breathlessly enthused: ‘Paganini’s faultless execution is beyond imagination. His style utterly unique…’

Did Paganini play the guitar?

And it didn’t end there. Although Paganini never once gave a public performance on the guitar, he was widely held by those who saw him play in private to be a virtuoso without equal. He left over 100 solo works for the instrument of which he was secretly a master, many of which still have not seen publication, in addition to an enchanting series of pieces for guitar and violin.

The sparkling precision of Paganini’s pyrotechnics inspired a revolutionary interpretative approach that would dominate music-making for over a century. From now on, passages of scintillating bravura were thrown off effortlessly with a magician’s sleight of hand, while slow sections were agonised over, draining the last drop of emotion out of every note.

Successful virtuosos became effectively people of the theatre, enhancing their purely musical credentials with visual spectacle. Paganini cultivated a pale, gaunt appearance, bedecked with unkempt black hair and a long frock coat. This combined with his slightly distorted facial features (the result of a botched operation on his jaw) to create the impression of a cadaverous ghoul. As one Liverpool critic put it in 1832 after seeing Paganini in action: ‘You draw a deep breath after he has departed and ask yourself if what you have just seen and heard be not a dream.’

Which composers admired Paganini?

Sensitive souls fainted at the mere sight of Paganini, convinced that he was in league with the devil. Others believed he possessed paranormal abilities and literally cast a hypnotic spell over his audiences. To add to the mystique, he kept the orchestral parts to his concertos under lock and key, only allowing them out for rehearsals and concerts lest anyone might divulge his secrets. Poems were written about him, new recipes were created in his honour, streets were named after him and countless were the women who fell under his magnetic spell.

Yet behind all the showbiz antics lay a deeply serious musician and composer. His music may superficially create the impression of Rossini in instrumental overdrive, but he possessed a considerable gift for indelible, long-breathed cantabile melody (as witness his concerto slow movements) and for probing the dark side of the human psyche. ‘His melodies are broad and Italian,’ observed Berlioz, ‘but full of a passionate ardour found only in the best pages of his country’s composers.’ Schumann also considered that his music contained ‘many pure and precious qualities,’ and that it represented ‘the turning point in virtuosity’.

Remarkably, the man who redefined instrumental virtuosity and provided an interpretative template for the Romantic era, came from an ordinary Genoese background.

When was Paganini born?

Paganini was born on 27 October 1782. His shopkeeper father, Antonio, spotted his son’s talent at an early age. He started him off on the mandolin, then moved him swiftly onto the violin.

Aged just six, the future course of Paganini’s life was decided by a strict regime of 12 hours-a-day practice. Within no time he was outplaying his teachers and by his mid-teens could throw off even the most fiendishly difficult pieces at sight.

When did he become famous?

As a result he began composing daredevil virtuoso pieces designed to develop his prowess even further, climaxing in the 24 solo Caprices, a compendium of finger-breaking studies that took violin technique to its outer limits.

By now Paganini was already something of a legend. Following a series of sell-out concerts, he made his way to Lucca in 1801 to take part in the local music festival and made such a dazzling impact that he stayed on as Court music director. During the eight years he stayed in Lucca he became a national celebrity, making and spending a fortune, mostly on gambling. As he slid further and further into debt he had to pawn his own violin on several occasions.

At one point he turned up at Livorno without an instrument to play, yet such was his fame that on hearing his plight a wealthy amateur stepped into the breach and lent him his Guarneri del Gesú violin. Astounded by Paganini’s playing that night, he gave him the priceless violin, remarking that ‘I did not want to profane the instrument after you had played it’.

What piece did he compose for his Milan debut?

Incredibly, Paganini came within the turn of a card of losing the Guarnerius in a game of chance and was so shaken by the experience that he was cured of the gambling habit for life. He went on to amass an astounding collection of 24 superb instruments, including no fewer than 11 Stradivari, three Guarneri and two Amati.

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Few debuts have created such a stir as Paganini’s first appearance in Milan in 1813. He already had a huge following and rumours were rife that his spellbinding powers were the result of a pact with the forces of evil. Fanning the flames of public outrage, Paganini composed a fiendishly difficult set of variations entitled provocatively Le streghe (‘The Witches’).

This featured one of his favourite party tricks, which was to play using the customary four strings initially and then (with the aid of a pair of scissors) three, two and finally one string alone. His playing that evening left the audience incredulous, including a reporter from Leipzig: ‘Paganini is without question the foremost and greatest violinist in the world,’ he wrote excitedly. ‘His playing is truly inexplicable. He performs certain passages, leaps and double stops that have never been heard from any violinist.’

What other pieces did Paganini compose?

It would be another 15 years before the Italian wizard performed outside Italy, during which he expanded his musical conjuring repertoire with a series of spectacular compositions. These included two Violin Concertos, the first of which he cast in a warm E flat for the orchestra but in the relative comfort and brightness of D for himself. In order to enhance the sonic brilliance of his playing, he then ratcheted his violin up a semitone to match the orchestra’s tuning!

Another showstopper was the Introduction and Variations on a theme from Rossini’s Mosè, in which Paganini humorously moved the bass drum thumps from the strong beat of Rossini’s original to the weak beat in every bar, much to the approval of Berlioz. Most bewildering of all was his solo Variations on ‘God Save the King’, in which at one point the violinist has to pluck out the famous melody with the left hand with intermittent help from ‘thrown’ bow strokes at the same time.

Paganini then took Europe by storm, beginning on 29 March 1828 in Vienna, where the 45 year-old’s playing caused such paroxysms of delight that he received the great gold medal of St Salvator, and the Emperor presented him with the honorary title of Court Virtuoso. Prague proved altogether less congenial, but Germany fell so far under the spell of the Italian’s wizardry that he based himself there for two years.

What is Paganini’s most famous piece?

Yet it was in Paris in 1831 that he scored perhaps the greatest triumph of his career with his Fourth Violin Concerto. Reporting in the influential Journal des Débats, the great critic Castil-Blaze enthused: ‘The solo violin, in its highest register, replied to the trombones; it then took up an idea where the trumpets had just left it and rendered it in harmonics in such a way as it seemed as though the same instrument was playing.

The magic of Paganini’s playing astonishes me more each day.’ Several members of the audience fainted with excitement, while the virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt was beside himself with admiration. ‘What a man!,’ he exclaimed, ‘What a violin! What an artist! Heavens! What sufferings, what misery, what torture in those four strings!’

Berlioz and Paganini

Paganini’s success in France launched a remarkable period of some four years, during which he toured throughout Europe (including Great Britain) on waves of pop-star adulation. One impressionable onlooker claimed to have seen the devil standing at Paganini’s elbow, while another started an unfounded rumour that he had murdered a jilted mistress. Berlioz composed his second symphony, Harold in Italy (1834), especially for him, but he pulled out as he felt the solo viola part wasn’t showy enough. On reflection, however, he so admired the work that he gave Berlioz a gift of 20,000 francs as a token of his esteem.

Just as Paganini looked set to conquer the world, the ill health that had plagued him throughout his life began to affect his playing. The unique flexibility of his left hand began to fail him, which may help explain the fact that his most famous piece of this period, the whirlwind Moto perpetuo, is about stamina and co-ordination rather than athletic prowess.

When did Paganini die?

The virtuoso developed a cancerous growth on his larynx, which began to affect his ability to speak, and an ill-timed investment in a casino nearly bankrupted him. He retired to Parma, where he ended his days planning a new violin method and conducting the Court Orchestra before finally succumbing to death on 27 May 1840.

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