As we showed in our recent post, there are several virtuosos out there, yet not only is their number small compared to the overall population, but few could compare with one of the originals, Niccolò Paganini. Despite a short life, he managed to change the violin technique as few others have.
Who was Niccolò Paganini?
Niccolò Paganini (also known as Nicolò Paganini) was a violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer of Italian origins. He lived between the 27th of October 1782 and the 27th of May 1840. During this time, he became the most acclaimed violin virtuoso of the era and became an influence on the modern technique in playing the violin.
You may be familiar with his work, such as the famed “24 Caprices for Solo Violin Op.1”, but his overall work has inspired many composers over the years, including Chopin, Liszt, and Pugni.
Niccolò’s early years
Niccolò was born in the northern Italian city of Genoa – back then, it was actually the capital of the Republic of Genoa so we know it was a highly cultural city.
His father’s name was Antonio and his mother was named Teresa. Together they had six children, with Niccolò being in the middle, as he was born the third one. His father worked in commerce, although he didn’t have much success, so he brought more income into the household by playing the mandolin.
When he was around five years old, Niccolò learned to play the mandolin from his dad and by the time he turned seven, he started playing the violin. His native talent was recognized quickly by those around him and he was able to secure scholarships in order to continue his violin lessons.
For a while, Niccolò had local teachers, but it soon became obvious that his talent was far too big and his progress much too fast for them to be able to keep up with him. As a result, his father took him to the Italian city of Parma, then part of the Duchy of Parma, to meet with famed violin virtuoso and composer, Alessandro Rolla.
Alessandro played a very important part in developing the technique for the violin and viola and his style left an impression on Niccolò. Some of the styles that people usually associate with Niccolò were actually inspired by the works of Alessandro.
Alessandro sent Niccolò to his own teacher, the Italo-Austrian composer, Ferdinando Paer. Paer, in turn, referred the pupil to his own teacher, an Italian violinist, and composer named Gasparo Ghiretti. The amount of time Niccolò spent with them is not known, varying from several months to a couple of years.
Regardless of the time spent together, their styles left an influence on Niccolò. Today, most of these men, despite their own talents, are usually known for being the teachers of Niccolò Paganini and less for their own incredible work.
The northern part of Italy found itself under the French invasion when Niccolò was only 14. The family took refuge in a rural property near Bolzaneto and it is considered that during this time, Niccolò started playing the guitar. Although he managed to master the guitar quickly, he liked to play it mostly in intimate settings, rather than in concerts for the public.
Fame in Italy
In 1800 Niccolò and his father traveled to Livorno where the child gave several concerts. The next year, when he turned 18, Niccolò was named the first violin of the Republic of Lucca, but he continued to earn most of his money as a freelancer. His talent became notorious, just like his reputation for gambling and being a womanizer.
When Lucca became the Principality of Lucca and Piombino under Napoleonic rule, Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s favorite sister became the ruler, while Niccolò became a violinist for her court and started giving lessons to Felice, Elisa’s husband. Niccolò moved to Florence as part of the entourage but left in 1809 to continue his freelancing.
Niccolò remained famous with the people in the areas of Genoa and Parma, but it wasn’t until 1813 that he became more famous after a successful concert in La Scala in Milan. He remained in Italy for another couple of years but started rivalries with several composers he met during this time such as Louis Spohr or Charles Philippe Lafont.
In 1827 Niccolò received the “Order of the Golden Spur” from Pope Leo XII. The next year he started touring several countries, such as Germany, Bohemia, France, Great Britain and Poland to great reviews.
Niccolò was praised for his technical abilities and his desire to display them, making him very popular. He often played his own compositions, but also modified versions of works by Giovanni Battista Viotti or Rodolphe Kreutzer.
All through this, Niccolò was suffering from chronic illnesses – sources vary between the Marfan syndrome or the Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. His touring life also damaged his health as did syphilis and its treatment which was based on opium and mercury. This led to him to experience the psychological and physical side effects of that treatment.
In 1834 he was suffering from tuberculosis for which he received treatment. Although he recovered rather quickly, after that moment, his health was truly in a bad shape and he canceled many of his performances because of various reasons, ranging from having a cold to having depression.
Return to Italy and death
The same year, not being able to take it anymore, Niccolò gave up on his concert career and returned to his home city. Here he started working on publishing his methods for violin and for composing and even took students, but they would later claim their meetings weren’t very successful.
In 1835 Niccolò returned again to Parma as an employee of Napoleon’s second wife, the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. His role was of organizing the court orchestra, but he clashed with the court and the players, so his vision never came true.
The following year he traveled to Paris where he planned to start a casino. The project quickly fell and left Niccolò in financial ruin and debt. He had to sell personal belongings, including the musical instruments, to be able to recoup the losses. He traveled to Marseilles and then Nice, but his health became worse and worse.
In May of 1840, the Bishop of Nice sent a priest to where Niccolò was living in order for the last rites to be performed, but Niccolò refused, considering the gesture as being premature. He died a week later from internal hemorrhaging and the Church denied his body receiving a proper Catholic burial in his hometown.
It was only after four years and the intervention of the Pope that the Church permitted for his body to be moved to Genoa, but a burial was still refused. Niccolò was buried in a Parma cemetery in 1876, but in 1893, after a viewing of his body at the insistence of Czech violinist František Ondříček, he would not be buried again until 1896, also in Parma.
Work as a violinist
Violinist Ivry Gitlis described Niccolò as a phenomenon. Although Bach or Vivaldi influenced the way the violin was played, by the time Niccolò found success, the progress for the violin technique was slowly fading away. Techniques that required agility of both the fingers and the bow were still seen as strange by many and highly discouraged.
Niccolò changed that and introduced flexibility to the technique. His fingers are known to have been really long which enabled him to play three octaves across four strings in one hand span, a feat that is quite impressive even today! This strange ability, though, was probably a result of the Marfan syndrome he was allegedly suffering from.
Work as a composer
Niccolò preferred to compose his own pieces of work for when he was giving concerts. These works became highly influential in the way the violin technique evolved. He has worked on solo pieces, duo sonatas, trios, and quartets.
His many works were often imaginative from a technical point of view. This made the timbre of the played instrument to be much expanded. He also used to produce sounds of other musical instruments or even animals in his works, a famous example for the latter being “Il fandango spagnolo”, which was unfortunately lost in the years that came.
Because of his different ways of approaching classical themes, subjects, and items, Niccolò Paganini managed to become one of the most famous and acclaimed virtuosos of the world, despite his rather short career.