04 January 2011

a deal with the devil



Niccolò Paganini was an Italian virtuoso violinist who lived from 1782 until 1840. To say that he brought incredible new techniques to the violin would be an understatement of massive proportions.

It is impossible to over-estimate Paganini’s impact on the violin. No composer or performer before him had raised technical ability with the instrument to such dazzling heights. People flocked in great numbers to witness his legendary performances, in which he exuded an almost mystical quality.

Violin techniques had remained conservative for decades but Paganini introduced ricochet bowing, double stop octave runs, left hand pizzicato, extensive harmonics and hitherto unheard of fingering. He played passages at astounding speed, sometimes twelve notes per second. He made the violin talk, effortlessly reproducing the sounds of birds and animals and even mimicing the sighs of lovers. His fingers were abnormally long, enabling him to play an astonishing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, a feat that is still considered impossible by today's standards.

Stories began to circulate that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil in return for his amazing wizardry with the violin. His wild, piercing eyes, thin face, large sharp nose and long, gypsy-black hair only served to support the theories. Far from discouraging the rumours, Paganini cultivated them by dressing in all black and wearing long capes. He frequently broke strings yet played on sometimes with only two strings yet with no noticeable difference. Audiences gasped and fainted at his performances.

Paganini’s musical legacy is a small one compared with giants like Bach and Mozart but his compositions represent the sternest available tests. His complete works fit onto half a dozen CDs. However, nearly two centuries after their composition, his twenty-four Caprices are still the very highest pinnacle of achievement on a stringed instrument. Violinists who have learned and mastered to concert standard all twenty-four of these short but complex studies in finger co-ordination are a rare breed indeed, fewer than the mountaineers who have climbed Everest. Here is Caprice No. 24.


“The Cannon” was Paganini’s cherished instrument. It has a distinctive depth and resonance that defined Paganini’s unique expression. It is on display in Genoa and is occasionally loaned out for public recitals where its power shocks and awes listeners to this day. Few other instruments provide such a direct link with a musical genius.

3 comments:

Russell 'C.J.' Duffy said...

The man was hugely talented. I have nothing of his but admire him from the bits I have on Radio 3. On another note but still in the same vein, the BBC recenlty, in their music magazine, conducted a survey of who the greatest ever pianist was. Chopin or Liszt? No. Rachmaninov won. Why? Because there are no recordings of the others music so therefore didn't count!!!
I guess the same could be applied to Paganini!

Perfect Virgo said...

CJ - It would be interesting to investigate which nineteenth century composers had themslves recorded for posterity. Sadly the invention of recording would have come agonizingly too late for most.

Curious that the slow march of progress 2-300 years ago means we can only judge these musical geniuses as composers not as performers.

Russell 'C.J.' Duffy said...

Personally, I think it all a bit daft as I am sure that by word of mouth alone Paganini, Vivaldi etc were highly thought of and the judgement made then holds true now.