|Earth's effective picture of the great violinist in prison is an instance of the use of that license which we are generally willing to allow the painter and the poet. Among the many astounding fictions which were related about Paganini is one which asserts that, during years spent in confinement on the charge of murdering his wife, he solaced himself and perfected his art by the constant use of his beloved instrument, and this story must serve as the artist's excuse. Doubtless as many believers were found for this baseless tale as for these others.
Some declared that he had a league with Satan, and held interviews with him in an old Florentine castle, much frequented by the artist, from which, they said, fearful sounds were heard proceeding on stormy nights, and where the great master was known to have lain as one dead for hours together, on different occasions. These persons believed that at such times Paganini had only come back to life by magical agency. Another swore to having seen a tall, dark shadow bending over him at one of his concerts, and directing his hand; while a third testified that he had seen nine or ten shadowy hands hovering about the strings of the great master's violin.
Many of his admirers warmly upheld it as their opinion that he was in reality an angel sent down to this world, in pity, for the purpose of lightening the miseries of earthly life by giving man a foretaste of what the heavenly harmonies will be hereafter. They said that it was as if a choir of sweet-voiced spirits lay hid within the instrument, and that at times it seemed as though this choir turned into a grand orchestra.
It was not only Paganini's wonderful playing, but his weird appearance which helped to gain credence for such surprising anecdotes. Leigh Hunt has left us a graphic description of the renowned fiddler.
"Paganini, the first time I saw and heard him, and the first time he struck a note, seemed literally to strike it, to give it a blow. The house was so crammed that, being among the squeezers in the standing-room at the side of the pit, I happened to catch the first glance of his face through the arm akimbo of a man who was perched up before me, which made a kind of frame for it; and there, on the stage in that frame, as through a perspective glass, were the face bent and the raised hand of the wonderful musician, with the instrument at his chin, just going to commence, and looking exactly as I described him:
Loading the air with dumb expectancy,
Suspending ere it fell a nation's breath,
He smote, and clinging to the serious chords,
With godlike ravishment drew forth a breath
So deep, so strong, so fervid thick with love,
Blissful yet laden as with twenty prayers,
That Juno yearned with no diviner soul
To the first burthen of the lips of Jove.
Th' exceeding mystery of the loveliness
Sadden'd delight, and with his mournful look,
Dreary and gaunt, hanging his pallid face
'Twixt his dark flowing locks, he almost seem'd
Too feeble, or to melancholy eyes
One that has parted with his soul for pride,
And in the sable secret lived forlorn.'
"To show the depth and identicalness of the impression which he made upon everybody, foreign or native, an Italian, who stood near me, said to himself, after a sigh, O Dio!' and this had not been said long when another person in the same manner exclaimed, 'O Christ!' Musicians pressed forward from behind the scenes to get as close to him as possible, and they could not sleep at night for thinking of him."
Another writer shows us Paganini in his lodgings.
"Everything was lying in its usual disorder; here one violin, there another, one snuff-box on the bed, another under one of the boy's playthings. Music, money, caps, letters, watches, and boots were scattered about in the utmost confusion. The chairs, tables, and even the bed had all been removed from their proper places. In the midst of the chaos sat Paganini, his black silk nightcap covering his still blacker hair, a yellow handkerchief carelessly tied around his neck, and a chocolate-coloured jacket hanging loose upon his shoulders. On his knees he held Achillino, his little son of four years of age, at that time in very bad humour because he had to allow his hands to be washed. His affectionate forbearance is truly wonderful. Let the boy be ever so troublesome, he never gets angry, but merely turns around and observes to those present, 'The poor child is wearied; I do not know what I shall do, I am already quite worn out with playing with him. I have been fighting with him all the morning; I have carried him about; made him chocolate; I do not know what more to do!'
"It was enough to make one die of laughing to see Paganini in his slippers fighting with his little son, who reached to about his knee. Sometimes the little Achillino would get into a rage; draw his sabre upon his father, who would retreat into the corner of the room and call out, 'Enough, enough! I am wounded already;' but the little fellow would never leave off until he had laid his gigantic adversary tottering and prostrate on the bed. Paganini had now finished the dressing of his Achillino, but was himself still in dishabille. And now arose the great difficulty, how to accomplish his own toilet, where to find his neckcloth, his boots, his coat. All were hid, and by whom? - by Achillino. The urchin laughed when he saw his father pacing with long strides through the apartment, his searching looks glancing in all directions; and upon his asking him where he had put his things, the little wag pretended astonishment, and held his tongue, shrugged up his shoulders, shook his head, and signified by his gesture that he knew nothing about them. After a long search, the boots were found; they were hid under the trunk; the handkerchief lay in one of the boots; the coat in the box; and the waistcoat in the drawer of the table. Every time that Paganini had found one of his things, he drew it out in triumph, took a great pinch of snuff, and went with new zeal to search for the remaining articles, always followed by the little fellow, who enjoyed it vastly when he saw his papa searching in places where he knew nothing was hid. At last we went out, and Paganini shut the door of the apartment, leaving behind him, lying about upon the tables and in the cupboards, rings, watches, gold, and what I most wondered at, his most precious violins. Any idea of the insecurity of his property never entered his head; and, fortunately for him, in the lodgings which he occupied the people were honest."
The famous violinist, like the rest of us, had his faults, but we can easily find instances to prove the kindness of his heart.
One day, while walking in Vienna, Paganini came across a poor boy playing upon a violin. He went up to him and learned that he maintained his mother and a flock of little brothers and sisters by the money which he picked up as an itinerant musician. Paganini turned out his pockets, gave the boy all the coins he could find, and then, taking the boy's violin, commenced playing. A crowd soon assembled, and, when he had finished playing, Paganini went around with his hat, collected a goodly sum, and then gave it to the boy, amid loud acclamations from the bystanders.
In the autumn of 1832 Paganini was an invalid at Paris, and seldom saw any one but Nicette, a merry country girl who waited upon him, and often cheered him up in hours of sadness. One morning she appeared with weeping eyes, and waited upon the musician without saying a word.
"What's the matter, child?" said the musician. "Has any misfortune happened to you?"
"Alas! yes, sir."
"Speak! speak! What is it?"
She was silent.
"Now, out with it," said he. "I see it all clearly enough. After he had made you a thousand promises he has forsaken you. Is it not so?"
"Alas! poor fellow, he has indeed forsaken me, but he is quite innocent."
"How has that happened?"
"He has drawn a bad number in the conscription, and must go off for a soldier. I shall never see him again!" sobbed the poor girl.
"But can't you buy a substitute for him?"
"How could I get such a large sum? Fifteen hundred francs is the lowest price, for there is a report that a war will soon break out," said she.
Paganini said no more, but when Nicette had left the room, he took his pocketbook and wrote in it, "To think what can be done for poor Nicette."
It was toward Christmas-time, and Paganini's health was improved, when one afternoon Nicette came into the room where he was, and announced that a box had come, addressed to Signer Paganini. It was brought in, and the first thing which he pulled out was a large wooden shoe.
"A wooden shoe," said Paganini, smiling. "Some of these excellent ladies wish to compare me with a child, who always receives presents and never gives any. Well, who knows but that this shoe may earn its weight in gold?"
Nothing now was seen of Paganini for three days, during which time his clever hand had transformed the shoe into a well-sounding instrument. Soon afterward appeared an advertisement announcing that, on New Year's eve, Paganini would give a concert, and play five pieces on the violin and five on a wooden shoe. A hundred tickets at twenty francs each were instantly sold. Paganini duly appeared, and played on his old violin as he alone ever did. Then, taking up the wooden shoe, he commenced a descriptive fantasia. There it was, - the departure of the conscript, the cries of his betrothed at the parting, the camp life, the battle and victory, the return-rejoicings, and marriage-bells, all were vividly portrayed.
The company departed, but in the corner of the room stood Nicette, sobbing bitterly.
"Here, Nicette," said Paganini, going up to her, "are two thousand francs, - five hundred more than you require to purchase a substitute for your betrothed. That you may be able to begin housekeeping at once, take this shoe-violin and sell it for as much as you can get for it."
Nicette did so, and a wealthy collector of curiosities gave her a very large sum indeed for Paganini's wooden shoe.
Here is another anecdote of Paganini, as related by one who took part in some of the frequent demands upon his goodness of heart. When Paganini was in London, he resided at No. 12 Great Pulteney Street, in a house belonging to the Novellos, next door to which was a "young ladies'" school, kept by a humpbacked old lady. The girls were perfectly aware who their next-door neighbour was, and, with the fondness of female youth for mischief, had nicknamed Paganini "the devil."
Now, in order to avoid being heard from the street, "the devil" used to practise his violin in a back room, which happened to be divided only by a thin partition from the next house. The adjoining room was one devoted by the old lady to the most advanced of her pupils, and here they were allowed to do their needlework apart from the others, and were frequently left to themselves.
When the cat's away, however, the mice will play. The temptation to make overtures to "the devil" was too great for the young ladies; and whenever they heard him in his room, while one kept a lookout at the door for the intrusions of "old humpback," there was a delicate "tat-tat-tat" at the partition, and a half-singing, half-speaking call, "Pag-an-in-ee, Pag-an-in-ee - the Carnival - 'Carnival de Venise';" whereupon he would go to his window, open it, and accede to the request, playing the piece exactly as he did in public, nor did the maestro ever once fail to gratify the wishes of his fair neighbours.
"Paganini received some enthusiastic receptions in his time, but probably never a more spontaneous outburst than that which came from a son of Erin's Isle, after one of his performances in Dublin. On the occasion in question, Paganini had just completed that successful effort, the rondo à la Sicilienne from 'La Clochette,' in which was a silver bell accompaniment to the fiddle, producing a most original effect (one of those effects, we presume, which have tended to associate so much of the marvellous with the name of this genius). No sooner had the outburst of applause ended, than the excited Paddy in the gallery shouted out as loud as he was able:
"'Arrah now, Paganini, just take a drop o' whisky, my darling, and ring the bell again like that!'
"At a soirée given by Troupenas, the music publisher, in Paris, in 1830, Paganini gave one of the most wonderful exhibitions of his skill. Rossini, Tamburini, Lablache, Rubini, De Beriot, and Malibran were of the party. Malibran, after singing one of her spirited arias, challenged Paganini, who said, 'Madam, how could I dare, with all the advantages you possess in beauty and your incomparable voice, take up your glove?' His declining was of no avail; the whole company, aware that such an opportunity might never occur again, urged him most strongly, and finally persuaded him to send for his violin. After an introduction, in which gleamed now and then the motive of Malibran's song, he gave the whole melody with additional fiorituras, so that the audience, amazed and overwhelmed, could not help confessing that he was the master. Malibran herself was most emphatic of all in proclaiming him the victor."
Paganini's favourite violin was a Joseph Guarnerius. An Italian amateur, who evidently knew its value, lent it to the great maestro, and, after hearing him play upon it, declared that no other hand should touch it, and presented it to Paganini. He left it to his native city of Genoa, where it is preserved in the town hall.
Ferdinand Barth, who painted "Paganini in Prison," was the son of a carpenter, and was born in Bavaria in the early forties. For some time he worked as a wood carver, and then began to paint, and studied at the Munich Academy, under Piloty. Probably his best known picture is "Choosing the Casket," in which he has depicted the familiar scene from the "Merchant of Venice."