Oct 272016


Today is the birthday (1782) of Niccolò Paganini, Genovese violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer. He was the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his time, and is still known as one of the pillars of modern violin technique. His 24 Caprices for Solo Violin Op. 1 are perhaps the best known of his compositions, and have served as an inspiration for later composers.

Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa, then capital of the Republic of Genoa, the third of the six children of Antonio and Teresa (née Bocciardo) Paganini. Paganini’s father was an unsuccessful maritime trader, but he managed to supplement his income through playing the mandolin. At the age of five, Paganini started learning the mandolin from his father, and moved to the violin by the age of seven (mandolin and violin have the same fingering). His musical talents were quickly recognized, earning him numerous scholarships for violin lessons. 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 Paer and, later, Paer’s own teacher, Gasparo Ghiretti. Though Paganini did not stay long with Paer or Ghiretti, the two had considerable influence on his composition style.

The French invaded northern Italy in March 1796 forcing the Paganinis to flee to their country property in Romairone, near Bolzaneto. It was in this period that Paganini is believed to have developed his guitar playing. He became adept on the guitar, but preferred to play it in exclusively intimate settings, rather than at public concerts. He later described the guitar as his “constant companion” on his concert tours. By 1800, Paganini and his father traveled to Livorno, where Paganini played in concerts and his father resumed his maritime work. In 1801, the 18-year-old Paganini was appointed first violin of the Republic of Lucca, but a substantial portion of his income came from freelancing. He quickly earned fame as a violinist, 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 to Elisa’s husband, Felice. 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.

For the next few years, Paganini returned to touring in the areas surrounding Parma and Genoa. Though he was very popular with the local audience, he was still not very well known in the rest of Europe. His first breakthrough came from an 1813 concert at La Scala in Milan which was a great success. As a result, Paganini began to attract the attention of other prominent, but more conservative, musicians across Europe. His early encounters with Charles Philippe Lafont and Louis Spohr created intense rivalry. His concert activities, however, were still limited to Italy for the next few years.


Paganini’s violin technique (and virtuosity) are still the subject of debate among music historians. Though some of the virtuoso techniques frequently employed by Paganini were already practiced by other musicians, most accomplished violinists of the time focused on intonation and bowing techniques. Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) was considered a pioneer in transforming the violin from an ensemble instrument to a solo instrument. In the meantime, the polyphonic capability of the violin was firmly established through the Sonatas and Partitas 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 drastically changed through this period, techniques requiring agility of the fingers and the bow were still considered unorthodox and discouraged by the established community of violinists.

Much of Paganini’s playing (and his violin composition) was influenced by two violinists, Pietro Locatelli (1693–1746) and August Duranowski (Auguste Frédéric Durand) (1770–1834). During Paganini’s study in Parma, he came across the 24 Caprices of Locatelli (L’arte di nuova modulazione – Capricci enigmatici or The art of the new style – the enigmatic caprices). Published in the 1730s, they were shunned by the musical authorities for their technical innovations, and were forgotten by the musical community at large. Around the same time, Durand, a former student of Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755–1824), became a celebrated violinist. He was renowned for his use of harmonics and the left hand pizzicato in his performance. Paganini was impressed by Durand’s innovations and showmanship, which later also became his own hallmarks.


There is also a purely physical aspect to Paganini’s violin techniques, particularly his flexibility. He had exceptionally long fingers and was capable of playing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, which is an extraordinary feat even by today’s standards. This almost unnatural ability may have been a result of Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that results in abnormally long fingers.

In 1827, Pope Leo XII honored Paganini with the Order of the Golden Spur. His fame spread across Europe with a concert tour that started in Vienna in August 1828, stopping in every major European city in Germany, Poland, and Bohemia until February 1831 in Strasbourg. This was followed by tours in Paris and Britain. His technical ability and his willingness to display it received widespread critical acclaim. In addition to his own compositions, Paganini also performed modified versions of works (primarily concertos) written by his early contemporaries, such as Rodolphe Kreutzer and Giovanni Battista Viotti.


Throughout his life Paganini suffered chronic illnesses. His concert schedule, as well as his extravagant lifestyle, took their toll on his health. He was diagnosed with syphilis as early as 1822, and his remedy, which included mercury and opium, came with serious physical and psychological side effects. In 1834, while still in Paris, he was treated for tuberculosis. Though his recovery was reasonably quick, after the illness his career was marred by frequent cancellations due to various health problems, from the common cold to depression, which lasted from days to months.


In September 1834, Paganini put an end to his concert career and returned to Genoa. He devoted his time to the publication of his compositions and violin methods. He accepted students, of whom two enjoyed moderate success: violinist Camillo Sivori and cellist Gaetano Ciandelli. Neither, however, considered Paganini helpful or inspirational. In 1835, Paganini returned to Parma, this time under the employ of Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, Napoleon’s second wife, and was put in charge of reorganizing her court orchestra. However, he eventually came into conflict with the players and court, so his ideas were never realized. In Paris, he befriended the 11-year-old Polish virtuoso Apollinaire de Kontski, giving him some lessons and a signed testimonial. In 1836, Paganini returned to Paris to set up a casino. Its immediate failure left him in financial ruin, and he auctioned off his personal effects, including his musical instruments, to recoup his losses. At Christmas of 1838, he left Paris for Marseilles and, after a brief stay, travelled to Nice where his physical condition worsened. In May 1840, the Bishop of Nice sent Paganini a local parish priest to perform the last rites. Paganini assumed the sacrament was premature, and refused.


A week later, on 27 May 1840, Paganini died from internal hemorrhaging before a priest could be summoned. Because of this, and his widely rumored association with the devil, the Church denied his body a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years and an appeal to the Pope before the Church let his body be transported to Genoa, but it was still not buried. His remains were finally laid to rest in 1876, in a cemetery in Parma. In 1893, the Czech violinist František Ondříček persuaded Paganini’s grandson, Attila, to allow a viewing of the violinist’s body. After this bizarre episode, Paganini’s body was finally reinterred in a new cemetery in Parma in 1896.


This link will give you an idea of Paganini’s playing style via some of his most well known compositions:


I don’t much care for virtuosity for its own sake, and it’s difficult at this stage without being able to hear Paganini, or a recording, to be able to assess his playing. Nowadays the violinists who play Paganini’s caprices seem delighted to be able to play them at all. They can be very difficult technically. Did he breathe his soul into his playing along with his skill?  I hope so.


I’d like to highlight the cuisine of Cremona to celebrate Paganini because Cremona was, and still is, the center of expert violin making in Italy. This is where Giuseppe Guarneri, Antonio Stradivari, and several members of the Amati family made their instruments in the 17th and 18th century. The cuisine of Cremona is also justifiably famous. My problem is – as always – that you have to go to Cremona to taste it. The ingredients are local and the cooks who make the famous dishes use these local ingredients with generations of experience. Here’s a video showing a “pasta granny” making marubini – stuffed pasta in the style of Cremona. The stuffing is made with cotechino (an uncooked sausage of a style made only in Cremona), breadcrumbs, and cheese from Parma (down the road). This cheese is obviously Parmesan, but it’s nothing like the pallid stuff you buy grated in shakers in the supermarket.

Seriously – when you want great regional Italian cooking, buy a plane ticket.