When asked to name a famous violinist, the first person on most people’s lips is Niccolò Paganini. To this day, he is probably regarded as the greatest violinist of all time.
His legendary status, through both performance and composition, has continued to influence composers and violinists 175 years after his death, making him the foremost innovator of technique in violin repertoire.
This will be the first in a series of posts over the next few months, spanning the 18th and 19th centuries, featuring the great violin virtuosi of the classical and romantic eras in music.
Niccolò Paganini (27 October 1782 – 27 May 1840):
Anecdotally, it was the mandolin that little Niccolò learnt first, moving on to the violin when he was aged seven. He was also proficient on the viola and guitar. Born the third of six children in Genoa, he had a rare congenital disorder that meant he had freakishly flexible fingers.
He was so incredibly talented that many thought he had sold his soul to Satan. When you are able to compose and play music that is so fiendishly difficult it’s no wonder his superstitious audiences came to that conclusion! Cue the trailer for the recent film starring German violinist, David Garrett as “The Devil’s Violinist”:
In fact, Paganini was literally ‘born’ to play the violin, as his genetic makeup meant he had long fingers and could stretch his hands abnormally wide, a definite boon for a concert violinist. Because of his rubbery connective tissues he could apparently move his little finger (fourth finger on the violin), out sideways at right angles to the rest of his hand. However, this rather unfair advantage to his musicianship would come at a price, plaguing him with a plethora of other ailments.
It is now thought that Paganini’s genetic condition was Marfan Syndrome, which would explain his bouts of ill health, especially in his later life. Paganini suffered with joint pain, poor vision, breathlessness, chest pains and fatigue. These less desirable symptoms meant that he frequently had to cancel public performances and he died at the relatively young age of 58.
In addition to his congenital health problems Paganini contracted Syphilis in 1822 and took Mercury and Opium as a remedy, albeit one with serious side-effects.
Despite his physical challenges Paganini liked the high life, with a taste for gambling and womanising. He had a son (Achilles), with singer Antonia Bianchi, but they were never married. After his death, the Catholic Church in his hometown refused to bury him for decades (such was his reputation).
His first concerts were held mainly in Italy, but as his fame spread he travelled across Europe; spellbinding audiences in Vienna, Germany, Poland, Paris, Bohemia and Britain. He was the complete package as violinist. He possessed passion, flexibility, dexterity, technique, flair, imagination and innovation. He was able to write music that specifically showcased his particular style and skills that would be unmatched by any other violinist in his lifetime.
- List of compositions
- The Paganini Project by Peter Sheppard Skærved
- Paganini’s Violin – blog by Fein Violins
Much of Paganini’s playing (and his violin composition) was influenced by two violinists, Pietro Locatelli (1693–1746) and August Duranowski (1770–1834). During Paganini’s study in Parma, he came across the 24 Caprices of Locatelli (entitled L’arte di nuova modulazione – Capricci enigmatici or The art of the new style – the enigmatic caprices). Published in the 1730s, they were shunned by the musical authorities for their technical innovations, and were forgotten by the musical community at large. Around the same time, Durand, a former student of Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755–1824), became a celebrated violinist. He was renowned for his use of harmonics and the left hand pizzicato in his performance. Paganini was impressed by Durand’s innovations and showmanship, which later also became the hallmarks of the young violin virtuoso. Paganini was instrumental in the revival and popularization of these violinistic techniques, which are now incorporated into regular compositions.
His celebrated Violin Caprice No. 24 in A minor has provided inspiration for transcriptions and variations and themes on other instruments such as the cello, piano, flute, oboe, trumpet, saxophone and guitar.
Some of my favourite Paganini performances:
Caprice No. 24 in a vintage, virtuosic recording by Jascha Heifetz:
‘La Campanella’ for Violin and Orchestra by Ivry Gitlis:
Sonata in E minor, Opus 36 for violin & guitar, performed by Ruggiero Ricci and pianist Louis Persinger:
The heavenly tones of Leonid Kogan – Sonatine for Violin & Guitar in A Major:
Whilst his Moto Perpetuo isn’t melodic, it’s quite a feat to play accurately, and even more so on the cello. Top marks to Miklós Perényi:
Duet for one violin, performed by both Salvatore Accardo and, yes, you guessed it, Senor Accardo!
I Palpiti beautifully executed by Maxim Vengerov:
And finally…Yehudi Menhuin is wonderful in this vintage performance of the Violin Concerto No. 1 2nd & 3rd movements:
Paganini works that inspired other composers:
Paganini’s virtuosity and music was much admired by the likes of Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Johann Sedlatzek and Eugène Ysaÿe to name but a few.
Here is a small selection of classical pieces written in homage to Paganini.
Recollections of Paganini, a Fantasia for the pianoforte, by Hummel performed by Marco Pasini:
Liszt’s inimitable Paganini Etude No. 6 played with passion by Marc-Andre Hamelin:
I adore Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, played to perfection by Arthur Rubinstein:
Tárrega’s Variations ‘Carnaval de Venecia de Paganini’ sound wonderful on the classical guitar with David Russell at the helm:
I’d like to finish my finale with this quote from violinist.com:
“When it comes to violinists, virtuosity is not entirely the result of mechanical finger velocity and sheer technique, as it is with pianists. The violin is an instrument which has almost human whims—it is attuned to the mood of the player in a sympathetic rapport: a minute discomfort, the tiniest inner imbalance, a whiff of sentiment elicits an immediate resonance . . . probably because the violin, pressed against the chest, can perceive our heart’s beat. But this happens only with artists who truly have a heart that beats, who have a soul. The more sober, the more heartless a violinist is, the more uniform will be his performance, and he can count on the obedience of his fiddle, any time, any place. But this much-vaunted assurance is only the result of a spiritual limitation, and some of the greatest masters were often dependent on influences from within and without. I have never heard anyone play better—or, for that matter, play worse than Paganini . . .”
~ Heinrich Heine (1843) Thoughts on the Violin and on Violinists
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