University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Niccolo Paganini

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This remarkable man, the most famous of violin virtuosi, was born at Genoa, Italy, February 18, 1784. His father was a small tradesman, who, although quite uneducated, was a great lover of music, and a performer on the mandolin. He soon perceived the musical talent of his son, and began to instruct him at a very early age. He then handed him over to Servetto, and, for six months, to Costa, the principal violinist and conductor at Genoa. When eight years old he had already acquired considerable proficiency, and had also composed a sonata for his instrument.

In 1793 he made his first appearance in public at Genoa, and played variations on the air "La Carmagnole," then so popular, with immense success. He also used to play every Sunday a violin concerto in church, a circumstance to which Paganini himself attached much importance, as having forced him to the constant study of fresh pieces. About the year 1795 his father took him to Parma, with the intention of putting him under the famous violinist Alessandro Rolla. Paganini himself thus related their first meeting: Coming to Rolla we found him laid up. He appeared little inclined to see us, but his wife showed us into a room adjoining his bedroom, until she had spoken to him. Finding on the table a violin and the music of Rolla's latest concerto, I took up the instrument and played the piece at sight. Astonished at what he heard, the composer asked for the name of the player; and when told that it was but a young boy, would not believe it until he had seen for himself. He then told me that he had nothing to teach me, and advised me to go to Paer for instruction in composition." Fétis, in his monograph on Paganini, maintains that this statement rests on a mistake, as Paer was then in Germany, and that it was under Ghiretti that Paganini studied for some time. It is also stated on good authority that for several months he had regular lessons from Rolla, and it is difficult to explain why he was in later years unwilling to acknowledge the fact.

Paganini was already bent on finding out new effects on the violin. After his return to Genoa he composed his first studies, which were of such unheard-of difficulty, that he himself is reported sometimes to have practiced a single passage for ten hours running. That such intense study should have resulted in the acquisition of unlimited execution, but should also have affected his health, is not to be wondered at. Up to this time he appears to have been wholly under the control of his father, who was a harsh and rough man. The boy naturally wished to escape from what he considered intolerable slavery. Being allowed to travel for the first time alone to Lucca, where he played with immense success at a music-festival in November, 1798, he did not return home, but went on to Pisa and other towns. Although only fifteen, he had already begun to lead a dissipated life, in which gambling took a prominent part. Alternate fits of study and gambling, interrupted by periods of utter exhaustion and by protracted illnesses, easily explain his frequent disappearances from public view, and his miserable health in later life. One day at Leghorn he gambled away everything he had, even to his violin. In order to enable him to appear at a concert, a M. Levron, an amateur, lent him a beautiful Joseph Guarnerius; and after having heard him play on it, presented it to him. This was the instrument which Paganini used for the rest of his life in preference to any other. He bequeathed it to his native town of Genoa, and it is preserved in a glass case in the Municipal Palace. Another fine violin, a Stradivarius, was given to him by Pasini, a painter.

From 1801 till 1804 Paganini lived in absolute retirement at the château of a lady of high rank, devoting much time to the study of the guitar, the lady's favorite instrument. He there composed two sonatas for guitar and violin (Op. 2 and 3). In 1804 he returned to Genoa, and for a year reapplied himself in an almost furious manner to the study of the violin. At this period he first learned to know the extravagant studies of Locatelli, especially his "Arte di nuova modulazione," and endeavored to emulate and outdo Locatelli's tours de force. He also composed three quartets for violin, viola, guitar and cello (Op. 4), a second set of the same name (Op. 5), and a set of variations di bravura with guitar accompaniment.

In 1805 he began again to travel. Wherever he played he excited unbounded enthusiasm. At Lucca he accepted an engagement as solo-player to the court, and as a teacher to the Prince Bacciochi, the husband of Napoleon's sister Elisa. It was there that he began his famous performance on the G-string alone. He resided at Lucca till 1808, and during the next nineteen years gave hundreds of concerts in all parts of Italy, his fame and the enthusiasm for his art ever and ever increasing. At the same time he was not unfrequently attacked by jealous rivals, and altogether his life was not free from strange adventures. "One day at Leghorn"—so he himself relates—"a nail had run into my heel and I came on limping, at which the audience laughed. At the moment I was about to commence my concerto, the candles of my desk fell out. Another laugh. After the first few bars of my solo my first string broke, which increased the hilarity; but I played the piece on three strings, and the sneers quickly changed into general applause."

At Ferrara he had a narrow escape from being lynched. Enraged by a hiss from the pit, Paganini resolved to avenge the outrage, and at the end of the concert proposed to the audience to imitate the voices of various animals. After having rendered the notes of various birds, the mewing of a cat, and the barking of a dog, he finally advanced to the footlights and calling out, "Questo è per quelli che han fischiato" (this is for those who hissed), imitated in an unmistakable manner the braying of a donkey. At this the pit rose to a man, rushed through the orchestra, climbed the stage, and would probably have killed Paganini if he had not taken to instantaneous flight. The explanation of this strange occurrence is, that the people of Ferrara had a special reputation for stupidity, and that the appearance of a Ferrarese outside the town was the signal for a significant "hee-haw." We may well believe that this was Paganini's last public appearance there.

At Milan his success was greater than anywhere else. He gave there in 1813 no less than thirty-seven concerts. In 1814, at Bologna, he first made the acquaintance of Rossini. In 1816 he met the French violinist Lafont at Milan, and had with him—quite against his wish—a public contest. Both played solos, and they joined in a concertante duet by Kreutzer. It does honor to Paganini's character that in relating the event he writes, "Lafont probably surpassed me in tone." That the victory after all rested with Paganini need hardly be added. A similar contest took place in 1817 at Placentia between Paganini and Lipinski. In 1827 Pope Leo XII conferred on him the order of the Golden Spur.

Hitherto Paganini had never played outside Italy. Encouraged to visit Vienna by Prince Metternich, who had heard and admired him at Rome in 1817, he repeatedly made plans for visiting Germany, but the wretched state of his health always prevent their execution. A sojourn in the delicious climate of Sicily at last restored him to comparative health, and he started for Vienna, where his first concert, March 29, 1828, created an unparalleled sensation. A perfect fever appears to have seized all classes of society: the shop windows exhibited hat, gloves, and boots à la Paganini; dishes of all sorts were named after him; his portrait was to be seen on snuff-boxes, and his bust on the walking sticks of Vienna dandies. He himself obtained the Grand Gold Medal of St. Salvator from the town, and the title of Virtuoso to the Court from the Emperor.

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During the following years, Paganini traveled in Germany, repeating his Vienna triumphs in all the principal towns of the country, especially in Berlin, where he played first in March, 1829, On March 9, 1831, he made his first appearance at Paris in a concert at the Opera. His success was quite equal to any he had had elsewhere. In the following May he went to London, and gave his first concert at the Opera House on June 3. Here he excited perhaps more curiosity than enthusiasm. He himself in a letter complains of the "excessive and noisy admiration" to which he was a victim in London, which left him no rest, and actually blocked his passage from the theater every time he played. "Although the public curiosity to see me," says he, "is long since satisfied, though I have played in public at least thirty times, and my likeness has been reproduced in all possible styles and forms, yet I can never leave my home without being mobbed by the people who are not content with following and jostling me, but actually get in front of me, and prevent my going either way, address me in English, of which I do not know a word, and even feel me, as if to find out if I am flesh and blood. And this not only the common people, but even the upper classes."

The financial results of his concerts in London, the Provinces, Scotland, and Ireland were very large. He repeated his visits in the following two years, played at a farewell concert at the Victoria Theater, London, June 17, 1832, and then returned to the continent in possession of a large fortune, which he invested chiefly in landed estates. The winter of 1833 he passed in Paris, and it was early in January, 1834, that he proposed to Berlioz to write a concerto for his Stradivarius viola, which resulted in the symphony called “Harolde en Italie.” For the next two years his favorite residence was Villa Gaiona near Parma. But his eagerness to mass money did not allow him to rest or attend to his health. In 1836 he received an invitation from Paris to take part in a money speculation on a large scale. It was proposed to establish, under the name Casino Paganini, in a fashionable quarter of Paris, a large and luxurious club—ostensibly with the view of giving concerts, but in reality for gambling purposes. Unfortunately he could not resist the temptation to embark in so doubtful an enterprise. The club-house was opened, but the gambling license was refused, and the concerts alone did not nearly cover the expenses of the establishment. Paganini hurried to Paris to save the concern, if possible, by appearing in the concerts. But he arrived in so exhausted a state of that he could not play. The company became bankrupt, and he himself suffered a personal loss of 50,000 francs. He remained in Paris for the winter of 1838, and it was on December 18 of that year that he gave Berlioz 20,000 francs, as a mark of his admiration for the "Symphonie fantastique."

The annoyance arising from the unfortunate affair of the casino greatly increased his malady, which was phthisis of the larynx. Seeking his relief in a warmer climate, he went to Marseilles, and stayed for some time in the house of a friend. Here, although almost a dying man, he would now and then take up his violin or his guitar, and one day even played his favorite quartet—Beethoven's F major, Op. 59, No. 1. On the approach of winter he went to Nice. Here his malady progressed rapidly; he lost his voice entirely, and was troubled with an incessant cough. He died May 27, 1840, at the age of fifty-six.

A week before his death the Bishop of Nice sent a priest to convey to him the last sacrament. Paganini, not believing that his end was so near, would not receive it. The wording of his will, in which he recommends his soul to the mercy of God and fixes a sum for masses to be said for its repose, proves his adherence to the Catholic Church. But as the priest did not return, and as Paganini in consequence died without the rites of the Church, the bishop refused him burial in consecrated ground. The coffin remained for a long time in a hospital at Nice; it was afterward removed to Villafranca, and it was not till 1845 that Paganini's son, by a direct appeal to the Pope, obtained leave to inter it in the village church near Villa Gaiona.

He left to his son Achilles a large fortune. Although as a rule chary with his money, he was occasionally very generous, as his gift to Berlioz, already mentioned, shows. The mystery which surrounded Paganini the man no doubt helped to increase the interest taken in the artist. The strangest rumors accompanied him wherever he went. It was commonly reported that he owed his wonderful execution on the G-string to a long imprisonment, inflicted on him for the murder of a rival in love, during which he had a violin with one string only. Paganini himself writes: "At Vienna one of the audience affirmed publicly that my performance was not surprising, for he had distinctly seen, while I was playing my variations, the devil at my elbow, directing my arm and guiding my bow. My resemblance to the devil was a proof of my origin." But even sensible and educated people believed that Paganini had a secret which enabled him to execute what appeared impossible to any other player. In fact, he has been suspected to have himself originated such rumors. As there was no doubt an admixture of charlatanism in the character of this extraordinary man, he may perhaps at first have done so. But on the other hand, he more than once contradicted them. At Prague he actually published a letter from his mother to disprove the rumor that he was the son of the devil; and at Paris, he furnished Fétis with all the necessary material and dates to refute publicly the numberless absurdities circulated about him. This was done by a letter inserted in the "Revue musicale," but it availed little. Fétis, in his monograph on Paganini, by establishing the chronology of his travels and his sojourns at various places, proves clearly that he could not have suffered a lengthened imprisonment. It was not only the perfectly novel and astonishing character of his performances, but to a large extent his extraordinary ghostlike appearance, which caused these absurd rumors. His tall, skeleton figure, the pale, narrow, wax-colored face, the long dark hair, the mysterious expression of the heavy eye, have often been described.

But after all, the extraordinary effect of his playing could have had its source only in his extraordinary genius. If genius, as has been justly remarked, is "the power of taking infinite pains," he certainly showed it in a wonderful degree in the power of concentration and perseverance which enabled him to acquire such absolute command of his instrument. Mere perfection of technique, however, would never have thrown the whole of musical Europe into such paroxysms. With the first notes his audience was spellbound; there was in him—though certainly not the evil spirit suspected by the superstitious—a demonic element which irresistibly took hold of those that came within his sphere. "His constant and daring flights," writes Moscheles, "his newly discovered flageolet tones, his gift of fusing and beautifying subjects of the most diverse kind—all these phases of genius so completely bewilder my musical perceptions that for days afterward my head is on fire and my brain reels." He was no "mere virtuoso"—there was a something in his playing that defied description or imitation, and he certainly had in a high degree originality and character, the two qualities which distinguish genius from ordinary talent.

His tone was not great: it could not be, for the one reason that the constant use of double harmonics and other specialties of his style necessitates very thin strings, which again preclude the production of a large and broad tone. But even his severest critics have always granted that his cantilena was extremely expressive. "I never wearied of the intense expression, soft and melting as that of an Italian singer," says Moscheles again. Spohr, in his "Autobiography," says of him: "The execution of his left hand and his never-failing intonation appeared to me as much as ever deserving admiration. In his compositions, however, and in his style of playing, I find a strange mixture of true genius and want of taste," etc. A distinguished English amateur, who heard him at York in 1832, writes in a letter, full of enthusiasm: "In the concerto on the fourth string he contrived to give some passages a tremulous sound, like the voice of a person crying. He makes great use of sliding his fingers along the strings—sometimes producing a most beautiful, at other times laughable effect." "Paganini," says Thomas Moore, "abuses his powers; he could play divinely, and does so sometimes for a minute or two; but then come his tricks and surprises, his bow in convulsions, and his enharmonics, like the mewlings of an expiring cat." Here no doubt is an explanation and to a certain extent a justification of Spohr's criticism. The frequent use of tremolo and of sliding indicate an impure style, which ought not to serve as a model; it was Paganini's style, founded on the man's inmost nature, which was as peculiar and exceptional as his talent. Spohr's criticisms—sincere enough, but often biased and narrow—prove nothing more than that Paganini was no scion of the classical school of Viotti and Rode. In fact he belonged to no school. He followed the bent of his individuality, in which the southern element of passion and excitement was very strong, and showed itself in a manner which to a colder northern taste appeared exaggerated and affected.

The main technical features of Paganini's playing were an unfailing intonation, a lightning-like rapidity on the fingerboard and with the bow, and a command of double stops, harmonics, and double harmonics, hardly equaled by anyone before or after him. He also produced most peculiar effects, which for a long time puzzled all violinists, by tuning his violin in various ways. He was not the first to adopt this trick, but no one before him had made any extensive use of it.

In his interesting "Anecdotes of the Great Musicians," W. Francis Gates gives us an account of Paganini's method of study that may well be considered by all students of music:

"We can hardly realize at this day of the world the future created by the marvelous performances of Paganini. The gaunt, cadaverous figure, the eccentric poses, the bewitching music, the undreamed-of technique, seconded by the terrible tales which had been circulated about his selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his wonderful powers—all this created such an interest and excitement as has hardly been paralleled in musical records.

"Various fiddlers whom he put sadly in the shade would have almost sold their souls to have captured the secret of his abilities. One of them went so far as to follow him from place to place, hoping to get an inkling of the magic that Paganini used. This man would even engage an adjoining room at the hotel where Paganini was staying, and kept up an unceasing espionage over the virtuoso, even going to the length of peering through the keyhole of the latter's room. On one occasion, when so engaged, he saw Paganini take up his instrument and place it in position as though about to play, but greatly to his disappointment, no a sound did the player make. He simply moved his left hand up and down the neck for a few moments, as though studying positions, then laid it aside, and that was all.

"During his youth Paganini was made to practice many hours per day, and the severe training that he was put through at that time, together with his phenomenal genius for his instrument, so settled his technique that it was not necessary for him to keep a severe and arduous course of practice with fixed regularity. Even when rehearsing with the orchestra, beyond a few isolated snatches, more often than not played pizzicato, he rarely ever played through those compositions which, at his concerts, delighted and astonished his audiences.

"But while his technical practice was largely finished in his youth, he was throughout his whole life an earnest student. The works which he performed were such as to demand constant study, for he constantly added new compositions to his repertoire, all of which he memorized. He studied them as one would study a poem, committing them to memory line by line and stanza by stanza, thus relieving himself of constant repetitions. He would so impress the notes, dynamic marks, and bowing upon his memory, that when he came to give the work audible expression, it remained only to apply the physical machinery he could so well control to its demonstration. At the proper moment every note appeared in its place with fitting finish and expression, although the artist may not previously have traced the combinations upon his instrument. An active and discriminating intelligence was at the root of all his musical performances."