Paganini's name is one that burns with lustre peculiarly of its own in the record of musical art in the nineteenth century. He represents the climax and the highest triumph of the virtuoso. Soon after the beginning of the nineteenth century came about what Dr. Hanslick calls a "new birth of the wandering musician," in the travelling virtuoso. Thalberg, Liszt, Chopin, Henselt, Clara Schumann, Döhler, Dreyshock, the pianists, and the violinists Spohr, Paganini, Vieuxtemps, Ole Bull, Lipinski, de Beriot, the cellist Servais, and still others, all appeared within a very few years of each other, contesting for the palm.
|Paganini (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Of all these, the most potent in his spell upon the public, the most mystifying in the magic of his wonderful technical powers, was Niccolo Paganini. With only one other of his kind was he comparable - Franz Liszt. But unlike him, Paganini lacked a high and truly musical gift. His powers were chiefly comprised in his marvellous mastery of the violin, and in the effects he obtained upon it, before him unheard of and unimagined. His composition have a certain originality and charm and many of them still appeal to violinists of the virtuoso style, and through them to the public; they exploit, naturally, the brilliancy and novelty of the technical devices that he introduced and that have become famous.
Paganini was born at Genoa, Italy, February 18, 1784. His father was a petty shopkeeper, uneducated, but fond of music, and a performer on the mandolin.
The young Niccolo, like most who have made a great mark in music, early showed evidence of his genius, and his father took steps to develop it, forcing his talent, in fact, with the greatest roughness and severity. He studied at first under local teachers. He had made much progress by the time he was six years old, and when he was eight he wrote a sonata. His master made him play a new concerto in church every Sunday, and at the age of nine years he made his first appearance at a concert. Then he was sent to Ghiretti and Alexander Rolla, of Parma. He even then began to experiment with a veritable frenzy. He made his first concert tour in the neighbouring Lombardy cities when he was thirteen years old, and laid there the foundation of a reputation that never ceased growing during his lifetime.
He speedily entered upon a checkered and adventurous career, in which his artistic successes were mingled with dissipations of all sorts, especially with a passion for gambling. For some years he experienced the strangest vicissitudes of mood, sometimes giving up the violin for the guitar for months at a time, sometimes devoting himself exclusively to amateur agriculture.
But he finally began his concert tours again, which he kept up in Italy with constantly increasing success, to the admiration and bewilderment of the public. In 1828 he left Italy for the first time, and appeared in Vienna. The contemporary accounts exhaust the resources of language to describe the delirium of excitement and wonder into which his performances threw the whole city. During his long stay in the Austrian capital, he was honoured in every possible way, official and unofficial. His progress through the cities of Germany was similar in kind. He reached Paris in 1831, where his success was quite as great.
Only in England was he received somewhat coldly, and his business methods aroused opposition: but his pecuniary gains were enormous.
The winter of 1833 he spent in Paris; one fruit of his sojourn was the symphony with viola obbligato, "Harold in Italy", which Berlioz wrote for him at his suggestion. In 1834 he returned to Italy, where he had invested his great earnings in landed estates. The final chapter of his life was a miserable end to his brilliant career; it was unfolded in France between 1836 and 1840. He joined with a firm of speculators in the building of a clubhouse, called the Casino Paganini, in Paris, nominally for musical entertainments, really for gambling. The government refused it a license: the concerts failed to pay. He hurried to Paris to save the venture by performing at them himself, but he was too ill to play. The company collapsed; he was sued for 50,000 francs, which he had to pay under pain of arrest. As the sentence was about to be executed upon him, he died of laryngeal consumption, on May 27, 1840, being at that time in Nice, in search of health.
Much has been written about the characteristics of Paganini's playing, which must have been much more than the mere trickery of a virtuoso. He seems to have had a fine though not very large tone, and an expressive cantilena; his intonation was unfailing, his rapidity on the fingerboard lightning-like, his bowing of the highest dexterity. He had such a command of double stops, harmonics, and double harmonics, as none other ever possessed. He introduced or revived a number if novel effects that long puzzled violinists, notably by tuning his instrument in unusual ways.
His violent staccato, his frequent use of left-hand pizzicato passages, were peculiarities of his playing. One of his most noted feats was to play solos upon the G-string, which he tuned higher, and upon which, by the use of harmonics, he attained a compass if three octaves.
Paganini's influence upon the modern technique of his instrument and the development of its style was very great, comparable only with that of Liszt upon pianoforte playing. His compositions are not numerous. Paganini's sheet music include twenty-four caprices for violin solo, twelve sonatas, two concertos, in E flat and B minor, a "Moto Perpetuo", several sets of variations and three quartets for violin, viola, guitar and violoncello.