Nicoḷ Paganini, the greatest violinist of his time, was born on 27 October, 1782 in Genoa, Italy. He began playing the violin at the age of seven, and his talent was quickly recognised by his father, a shipping clerk, who, according to Nicoḷ, starved him if he failed to work hard enough. Much of Paganini's early career was spent in Lucca, at the court of Princess Elisa Baciocchi, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom it is said he had an affair.
In 1813 his debut recital at La Scala, Milan was a resounding success. In spite of this, it was not until 1828 that the maestro was confident enough to embark on a foreign tour. From his very first concert, in Vienna, he received ecstatic public acclaim. Audiences found his technical wizardry, blazing eyes and demonic energy hypnotic.
Paganini was undoubtedly one of the greatest virtuoso violinists of all time. Paganini wrote nearly all the music he played himself. His work ranges from hair-raising difficulty to rhapsodic melody, with thrills and charm aplenty. Additionally, Paganini revolutionised the playing of the violin. In his relentless pursuit to master his instrument, he developed some stupendous techniques and skills that, at the time, were thought to be impossible. He experimented in retuning his strings for creating special effects and introduced the bouncing bow techniques as well as left-handed pizzicato plucking.
Paganini's clever technical wizardry made him a roaring success with the public. Today such techniques are the stock elements of every virtuoso violinist, but in Paganini's time they were unknown and were considered by most people to be practically superhuman skills - nobody had ever played, or composed for, the violin like him before.
Apart from his skills as a violinist, Paganini is said to have been able to play almost any stringed instrument. Indeed, he was playing the mandolin as a young child, well before he was introduced to the violin. He was also a virtuoso viola and guitar player. The classical guitar was a particular favourite, which Paganini turned to whenever he grew bored with the violin. He also wrote a number of fine works for the guitar.
Paganini lived during the first half of the 19th century, when the traditions of musical patronage, from the Church or aristocracy, were giving way to commercial concert-going, with orchestras and concert halls run like businesses. All this gave composers and performing artists unprecedented opportunities to gain fame and fortune - Paganini was certainly no exception. As he toured Europe, people flocked by the thousands to hear him, attracted by his virtuosity and flair for showmanship. Indeed, Paganini was the first musical superstar.
No composer's life has been surrounded by as many infamous stories as that of Paganini. His phenomenal virtuosity and electrifying stage presence gave rise to legends and rumours that have haunted his reputation ever since: It was even claimed that, while he was in prison for killing his mistress, the Devil granted him total mastery of the violin - in exchange, of course, for his soul. Supposedly, the Devil was also seen guiding the maestro's fingers during performances and then whisking him away at the end. The seemingly superhuman talent he had for playing the violin no doubt did much to fuel such stories. It is also likely that Paganini knew that such legends would help further his career and, therefore, did his bit to encourage them. Other rumours that he likely did not encourage include stories that he was a drug addict and that he suffered from syphilis.
Among his admirers were Chopin, Berlioz and Liszt (in fact, Liszt's attendance at an 1830 performance inspired Liszt to become the "Paganini of the Piano"). Paganini was a keen admirer of Berlioz's music as well and often lent him his support. On first meeting him, he asked Berlioz to write a piece that he would be able to play on his new Stradivarius viola, and Berlioz agreed, although a little reluctantly. In the event, Berlioz's doubts were well founded - Paganini felt that the piece, Harold in Italy, did not allow him enough room to excel as a virtuoso and never played it. But Paganini's support and admiration for Berlioz continued unabated, most notably when he made him a gift of 20,000 francs, after hearing him conduct Benvenuto Cellini, to enable him to continue composing.
Undoubtedly Paganini's most famous composition is his Caprice No.24. This piece inspired countless composers. Liszt, Schumann and Brahms, as well as later figures such as Lloyd Webber, Rachmaninov and Schnittke all wrote pieces inspired by the insidious little theme which provides the basis of Paganini's Caprice No.24. In this one piece, the full extent of Paganini's technical vocabulary, not least his left-hand pizzicati, harmonics and double-stopping is displayed in 11 variations!
Paganini, truly the master of his times, became rich, although he did lose most of his fortune (invested in a Paris casino) in 1838. Cancer of the larynx and the strain of constant touring took its toll on Paganini. Worn out, he died in Nice on 27 May, 1840 at the age of 58. Because Paganini was considered a heretic by the Catholic Church and did not receive final absolution (by best accounts he refused a priest), he was not permitted burial in consecrated ground. For several years his coffin was stored in a cellar. When the ban was lifted five years later, his remains were buried and dug up twice before finding a final resting place in Genoa in 1876.
contributed by Gifford, Katya