Paganini was an extraordinary 19th century composer and violinist. The Italian musician could play three octaves across four strings on only one hand, a skill, amongst many, that elevated him from his contemporaries.
The trials of adolescence
Niccolò (or Nicolò) Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy, on October 27, 1782. He died in 1840.
A musician and composer, accomplished on the violin, viola, and guitar, he is considered one of the greatest violinists in history. Although sadly, there are no recordings of the pieces he performed himself.
Paganini was born to parents Antonio and Teresa. He learned to play the mandolin with his father when he was only 5 years old, graduated to the violin at the age of 7, and started composing at the tender age of 8.
The precocious Paganini made his musical debut at 11 years old. Paganini had already studied with famed musicians Giovanni Servetto and Alessandro Rolla.
Paganini was overwhelmed by quick success, and by the age of 16 he fell victim to gambling and drinking.
A woman, whose identity was never recorded, saved Paganini’s career when she took him under her wing and moved him onto her estate. He was cared for, gave up his bad habits, and continued to practice the violin for three years in the kindly woman’s home. He also mastered the guitar.
At the end of three years, Paganini continued to travel and deliver violin performances, before returning to Genoa in 1804.
In Genoa, Paganini started to produce his own compositions. He also took the time to notice the talent of a 7-year-old music student named Catarina Calcagno. Paganini had a good ear; Catarina later became a famous symphony violinist.
A public reappearance, aged 23
Paganini reappeared in public in 1805, at the age of 23.
Under Napoleon’s rule of Lucca, Paganini became the conductor for Napoleon’s younger sister, Elisa Bonaparte, the Princess of Lucca.
Paganini achieved the dizzying heights of fame as a violinist after his first public appearance in Milano in 1813. Performances followed in Vienna (1828), in London and in Paris (1831). Paganini was one of the first musicians to tour as a soloist without the accompaniment of other artists.
He captivated audiences with his incomparable talent. Wealth and fame grew exponentially.
Paganini’s favorite instrument was the Il Cannone violin, made in 1742 by Giuseppe Antonio Guarnieri del Gesù. It was named after the army weapon the cannon, since it could create powerful, explosive musical crescendos.
The strings of the Il Cannone are laid almost on a flat surface, unlike most other violins that lay strings in an arc to avoid them touching one another. The arrangement of the strings on the Il Cannone allowed Paganini to simultaneously hit three or four strings at the very same time.
These days, the infamous Il Cannone is on display in the City Hall of Genoa. Every month its custodian takes down the instrument, just once, and rents it to famous classical players.
Later in his life, Paganini’s health deteriorated due to mercury poisoning. His illness prevented him from playing the violin, and he ceased performing in 1834. The level of medical expertise of the time was insufficient to cure his sickness.
Paganini died on May 27, 1840 in Nice, France.
Paganini’s unusual violin techniques
The Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis once referred to Paganini as a “phenomenon.”
“There are violinists, and then [there is] Paganini,” he said.
The techniques Paganini used have been attempted and enjoyed since, by different musicians. However most contemporary violinists focus on melodies, and alternative, more traditional bowing techniques, both of which are fundamental to accurate and heartfelt musical rendition.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) is widely regarded as the “father” of violin technique.
Corelli helped transform the role of the violin from an orchestral instrument to a valid solo performance instrument. The polyphonic ability of the violin was later confirmed by works such as Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and partitas BWV 1001-1006 for violin.
Numerous extraordinary violinists were to follow: Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), to name two musical giants.
Even so, the practice of developing new violin techniques remained slow into the 18th century as traditional techniques were favored.
Pietro Locatelli (1693-1746) composed 24 Caprices for violin solo, which, at the time of composition, were considered very difficult to play. The Caprices were thought to be the first “thorough exploration” of violin skills.
August Duranowski (1770–1834) wrote works that employed the fundament of musical chord composition and the technique of hooking the violin strings with the left hand. His pieces were considered examples of Locatelli’s techniques.
It remains uncertain whether Paganini was the first musician to employ certain string fingering techniques. Over time, the particularities of his work have frequently been confused with those of his contemporaries.
But doubtless, Paganini was the first to popularize his own idiosyncratic technique and include them into renditions of popular works.
Paganini’s “impossible technique”
Paganini’s unusually long and flexible fingers are actually thought by modern experts to be the result of Marfan syndrome, or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
His finger techniques were said to include two-player playing on double stops, double-play, and a left-handed technique that is practiced by some violinists today.
His technique, his tenacity, and the frenetic energy of his playing elevate Paganini’s musicianship to the very top, even by today’s standards.
We adore his work for its unique technique, and the passion imbued in his performance.