Niccolò Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) was an Italian violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer. He was one of the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his time, and left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique. His caprice in A minor, Op. 1 No. 24 is among his best known compositions, and serves as inspiration for other prominent artists from Johannes Brahms to Sergei Rachmaninoff.
The young Paganini studied under various local violinists, including Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa, but his progress quickly outpaced their abilities. Paganini and his father then traveled to Parma to seek further guidance from Alessandro Rolla. But upon listening to Paganini's playing, Rolla immediately referred him to his own teacher, Ferdinando Paër and, later, Paër's own teacher Gasparo Ghiretti. Though Paganini did not stay long with Paër or Ghiretti, the two had considerable influence on his composition style.
By age 18, Paganini was appointed first violin of the Republic of Lucca, but a substantial portion of his income came from freelancing. His fame as a violinist was only matched by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer. In 1805, Lucca was annexed by Napoleonic France, and the region was ceded to Napoleon's sister, Elisa Baciocchi. Paganini became a violinist for the Baciocchi court, while giving private lessons for her husband, Félix. In 1807, Baciocchi became the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and her court was transferred to Florence. Paganini was part of the entourage, but, towards the end of 1809, he left Baciocchi to resume his freelance career.
Paganini's fame spread with successful concerts held in cities outside of Italy, in Vienna (1828), London, and Paris (both in 1831). His technical ability, and his willingness to display them, gained much acclaim from critics across Europe. In addition to his own compositions, theme and variations being the most popular, Paganini also performed modified versions of works (primarily concertos) written by his early contemporaries, such as Rodolphe Kreutzer and Giovanni Battista Viotti.
Paganini's signature violin, Il Cannone fabricated in 1742 by Giuseppe Antonio Guarnieri del Gesù, was his favourite. He named it "The Cannon" because of the powerful and explosive resonance he was able to produce from it. Its strings are nearly on the same plane, as opposed to most violins, the strings of which are distinctly arched to prevent accidentally bowing extra strings. The stringing of Il Cannone may have allowed Paganini to play on three or even four strings at once. Il Cannone is now in the hands of the City of Genoa, where it is exhibited in the town hall. It is taken out and played by its curator once monthly, and periodically loaned out to virtuosi of today.
His health deteriorated due to mercury poisoning by the mercury compound used at that time to treat syphilis. The disease caused him to lose the ability to play violin, and he retired in ca.1834. He died of throat cancer in Nice.
The orchestral parts of Paganini's works are polite, unadventurous in scoring, and supportive. Critics of Paganini find his concerti long-winded and formulaic: one fast rondo finale could often be switched for another. During his public career, the violin parts of the concertos were kept secret. Paganini would rehearse his orchestra without ever playing the full violin solos. At his death, only two had been published. Paganini's heirs have cannily released his concertos one at a time, each given their second debut, over many years, at well-spaced intervals. There are now six published Paganini violin concerti (although the last two are missing their orchestral parts). His more intimate compositions for guitar and string instruments, particularly the violin, have yet to become part of the standard repertoire.
Paganini developed the genre of concert variations for solo violin, characteristically taking a simple, apparently naïve theme, and alternating lyrical variations with a ruminative, improvisatory character that depended for effect on the warmth of his phrasing, with bravura extravagances that left his audiences gasping.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was considered a pioneer in transforming the violin from an ensemble instrument to a solo instrument. In the mean time, the polyphonic capability of the violin was firmly established through the Sonaten und Partiten BWV 1001-1006 of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Other notable violinists included Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), who, in their compositions, reflected the increasing technical and musical demands on the violinist. Although the role of the violin in music had been drastically changed through this period, progress on violin technique was steady but slow up to this point. For any study of techniques requiring agility of the fingers and the bow were still considered unorthodox and discouraged by the established community of violinists.
The first exhaustive exploration of violin technique was found in the 24 caprices of Pietro Locatelli (1693-1746) which, at the time of writing, proved to be too difficult to play, although they are now quite playable. Rudimentary usage of harmonics and left hand pizzicato could be found in the works of August Durand, who allegedly developed the techniques. While it was questionable whether Paganini pioneered many of these violinistic effects that defined his music, it was certain that his mastery of these techniques was instrumental in popularizing their use in regular compositions.
Another aspect of Paganini's violin techniques concerned his flexibility. He had exceptionally long fingers and was capable of playing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, a feat that is still considered impossible by today's standards. His seemingly unnatural ability might have been a result of Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
The writing of violin music was also dramatically changed through Paganini. Even in his youth, he was able to imitate other sounds such as flatulence, flutes, and birds with his violin. Though highly colorful and technically imaginative, Paganini's composition was not considered truly polyphonic. Eugène Ysaÿe once criticized that the accompaniment to Paganini's music was too "guitar like", lacking any character of polyphonism. Nevertheless, he expanded the timbre of the instrument to levels previously unknown.
Paganini was also the inspiration of many prominent composers. Both "La Campanella" and the A minor caprice (Nr. 24) have been an object of interest for a number of composers. Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Boris Blacher, Andrew Lloyd Webber, George Rochberg and Witold Lutosławski, among others, wrote well-known variations on its theme.
In performance Paganini enjoyed playing tricks, like tuning one of his strings a semitone high (scordatura), or playing the majority of a piece on one string after breaking the other three. He astounded audiences with techniques that included harmonics, double stops, pizzicato with the left as well as the right hand, and near-impossible fingering and bowings.
Other works inspired by Paganini include:
Paganini made an appearance in Hugh Lofting's children's novel Doctor Dolittle's Caravan. In this novel, Doctor Dolittle forms an opera company made up entirely of birds, instead of human performers. Paganini attends a performance of the bird opera, causing quite a stir amongst the crowd, and then meets with Doctor Dolittle after the performance to discuss it.
Paganini's life inspired several films and television series. Most famously, in a highly acclaimed Soviet 1982 miniseries Niccolo Paganini the musician is portrayed by the Armenian stage master Vladimir Msryan. The series focuses on Paganini's persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. Another Soviet cinematic legend, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan plays Paganini's fictionalized arch-rival, an insidious Jesuit official. The information in the series was generally accurate, however it also played to some of the myths and legends rampant during the musician's lifetime. In particular, a memorable scene shows Paganini's adversaries sabotaging his violin before a high-profile performance, causing all strings but one to break during the concert. An undeterred Paganini continues to perform on three, two, and finally on a single string.
Paganini is a major character in Madame Blavatsky's The Ensouled Violin, a short story included in the collection Nightmare Tales. The story recounts rumors that (a) the strings of Paganini's violin were made from human intestines and (b) Paganini murdered both his wife and mistress and imprisoned their souls in his violin.