Niccolò Paganini

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Performers and composers

Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini
Born October 27, 1782
Genoa, Italy
Died May 27, 1840
Nice, France

Niccolò (or Nicolò) Paganini ( October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) was an Italian violinist, violist, guitarist and composer. He is one of the most famous violin virtuosi, and is considered one of the greatest violinists who ever lived, with perfect intonation and innovative techniques. Although eighteenth century Europe had seen several extraordinary violinists, Paganini was the preeminent violin virtuoso of the nineteenth century.


Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy, on 27 October 1782, to Antonio and Teresa (née Bocciardo) Paganini. Paganini first learned to play the mandolin from his father at the age of five, moved to the violin by the age of seven, and began composing before he turned eight. He gave his first public concert at the age of 12. In his early teens he studied under various teachers, including Giovanni Servetto and Alessandro Rolla, but he could not cope well with his success; and at the age of 16 he was gambling and drinking. His career was saved by an unknown lady, who took him to her estate where he recovered and studied the violin for three years. He also played the guitar during this time.

He reappeared when he was 23, becoming director of music to Napoleon's sister Elisa Baciocchi, Princess of Lucca, when he wasn't touring. He soon became a legend for his unparalleled mastery of the violin, with debuts in Milan in 1813, Vienna 1828, and both London and Paris in 1831. Paganini was one of the first musicians, if not the first, to tour as a solo artist, without supporting musicians. He became one of the first "superstars" of public concertizing. He made a fortune as a touring musician, and was uncanny in his ability to charm an audience.

Paganini's signature violin is known as Cannone Guarnerius, its name given by Paganini to reflect the "cannon" sound it produced. Its strings are nearly on the same plane, as opposed to most violins, the strings of which are distinctly arched to prevent accidentally bowing extra strings. The stringing of the Cannone may have allowed Paganini to play on three or even four strings at once.

In Paris in 1833, he commissioned a viola concerto from Hector Berlioz, who produced Harold in Italy for him, but Paganini never played it.

His health deteriorated due to Mercury poisoning by the mercury compound used regularly. The disease caused him to lose the ability to play violin, and he retired in ca.1834. He died in Nice on 27 May, 1840.

He left behind a series of sonatas, caprices, six violin concerti, string quartets, and numerous guitar works.

Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini

The orchestral parts of Paganini's works are polite, unadventurous in scoring, and supportive. Critics of Paganini find his concerti long-winded and formulaic: one fast rondo finale could often be switched for another. During his public career, the violin parts of the concertos were kept secret. Paganini would rehearse his orchestra without ever playing the full violin solos. At his death, only two had been published. Paganini's heirs have cannily released his concertos one at a time, each given their second debut, over many years, at well-spaced intervals. There are now six published Paganini violin concerti (although the last two are missing their orchestral parts). His more intimate compositions for guitar and string instruments, particularly the violin, have yet to become part of the standard repertoire.

Paganini developed the genre of concert variations for solo violin, characteristically taking a simple, apparently naïve theme, and alternating lyrical variations with a ruminative, improvisatory character that depended for effect on the warmth of his phrasing, with bravura extravagances that left his audiences gasping.

Paganini and the evolution of violin technique

The Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis said in Bruno Monsaiegnon's film, The Art of Violin, "Paganini is not a development ... there were all these [violinists before Paganini] and then there was Paganini." Though some of these violinistic techniques employed by Paganini were already present, most accomplished violinists of the time focused on intonation and bowing techniques (the so-called right-hand techniques for string players), the two issues that are most fundamental for violinists even in the present day.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was considered the father of violin technique, transforming the role of the violin from a continuo instrument to a solo instrument. At around the same period, the Sonaten und Partiten for solo violin (BWV 1001-1006) of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) firmly established the polyphonic capability of the violin. Other notable violinists included Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770). Although the role of the violin in music has been drastically changed through this period, progress on violin technique was slow up to this point.

The first exhaustive exploration of violin technique was found in the 24 caprices of Pietro Locatelli (1693-1746), which at the time of writing, proved to be too difficult to play, although they are now quite playable. Rudimentary usage of harmonics and left hand pizzicato could be found in the works of August Durand, who allegedly invented said techniques. Whilst it was questionable whether Paganini pioneered many of these "violinistic" techniques that made him famous, it was certain that he was the one popularized them and brought them into regular compositions.

Paganini was capable of playing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, a seemingly impossible feat even by today's standards. His flexibility and exceptionally long fingers may have been a result of Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. His fingering techniques included double-stops, parallel octaves (and tenths), and left-hand pizzicato, which are now routine exercises for aspiring violinists. Such leaps in the violin technique development were only paralleled by the likes of Josef Joachim, and Eugène Ysaÿe, almost half a century later.

Influence on music and composition

Tomb of Paganini in Parma, Italy
Tomb of Paganini in Parma, Italy

The writing of violin music was also dramatically changed through Paganini. Even in his youth, he was able to imitate other sounds (such as horn, flute, birds) with his violin. Though highly colourful and technically imaginative, Paganini's composition was not considered truly polyphonic. Eugène Ysaÿe once criticised that the accompaniment to Paganini's music was too "guitar like", lacking any character of polyphonism. Nevertheless, he expanded the timbre of the instrument to levels previously unknown.

Paganini was also the inspiration of many prominent composers. Both "La Campanella" and the a minor caprice (Nr. 24) have been an object of interest for a number of composers. Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Boris Blacher, Andrew Lloyd Webber, George Rochberg and Witold Lutosławski, amongst others, wrote well-known variations on its theme.

Listing of compositions

  • 24 caprices, for solo violin, Op.1
    • No. 1 in E major (The arpeggio)
    • No. 2 in B minor
    • No. 3 in E minor
    • No. 4 in C minor
    • No. 5 in A minor
    • No. 6 in G minor (The trill)
    • No. 7 in A minor
    • No. 8 in E-flat major
    • No. 9 in E major (The hunt)
    • No. 10 in G minor
    • No. 11 in C major
    • No. 12 in A-flat major
    • No. 13 in B-flat major (Devil's Laughter)
    • No. 14 in E-flat major
    • No. 15 in E minor
    • No. 16 in G minor
    • No. 17 in E-flat major
    • No. 18 in C major
    • No. 19 in E-flat major
    • No. 20 in D major
    • No. 21 in A major
    • No. 22 in F major
    • No. 23 in E-flat major
    • No. 24 in A minor (Tema con variazioni)
  • Concerto for violin No. 1, in D major, Op. 6 (1817)
  • Concerto for violin No. 2, in B minor, Op. 7 (1826) ( La Campanella, 'The little bell')
  • Concerto for violin No. 3, in E major (1830)
  • Concerto for violin No. 4, in D minor (1830)
  • Concerto for violin No. 5, in A minor (1830)
  • Concerto for violin No. 6, in E minor (1815?) — last movement completed by unknown hand.
  • 12 sonatas, for violin and guitar, Op. 2 and 3
    • Op. 2, No. 1 in A major
    • Op. 2, No. 2 in C major
    • Op. 2, No. 3 in D minor
    • Op. 2, No. 4 in A major
    • Op. 2, No. 5 in D major
    • Op. 2, No. 6 in A minor
    • Op. 3, No. 1 in A major
    • Op. 3, No. 2 in G major
    • Op. 3, No. 3 in D major
    • Op. 3, No. 4 in A minor
    • Op. 3, No. 5 in A major
    • Op. 3, No. 6 in E minor
  • 18 Centone di Sonate, for violin and guitar
  • Arranged works
    • Introduction, theme and variations from Paisiello's 'La bella molinara' (Nel cor più non mi sento) in G major (Violin Solo)
    • Introduction, theme and variations from Paisiello's 'La bella molinara' (Nel cor più non mi sento) in A major (Violin Solo with violin and cello accompaniment)
    • Introduction and variations on a theme from Rossini's 'Cenerentola' (Non più mesta)
    • Introduction and variations on a theme from Rossini's 'Moses' (Dal tuo stellato soglio)
    • Introduction and variations on a theme from Rossini's 'Tancredi' (Di tanti palpiti)
    • Maestoso sonata sentimentale (Variations on the Austrian National Anthem)
    • Variations on God Save the King
  • Miscellaneous works
    • I Palpiti
    • Perpetuela (Sonata Movimento Perpetuo)
    • La Primavera
    • Theme from "Witches' Dance"
    • Sonata con variazioni (Sonata Militaire)
    • Napoleon Sonata
    • Variations, Le Streghe
    • Cantabile in D major
    • Moto Perpetuo in C major
    • Romanze in A minor
    • Tarantella in A minor
    • Grand sonata for violin and guitar, in A major
    • Sonata for Viola in C minor
    • Sonata in C for solo violin
    • 60 Variations on Barucaba
  • 12 Quartets for Violin, Guitar, Viola and Cello, opus 4
    • No. 1 in A minor
    • No. 2 in C major
    • No. 3 in A major
    • No. 4 in D major
    • No. 5 in C major
    • No. 6 in D major
    • No. 7 in E major
    • No. 8 in A major
    • No. 9 in D major
    • No. 10 in A major
    • No. 11 in B major
    • No. 12 in A minor
    • No. 13 in F minor
    • No. 14
    • No. 15 in A Major

Works inspired by Paganini

The Caprice No. 24 in A minor, Op.1 (Tema con variazioni) has been the basis of works by many other composers. For a separate list of these, see 24th Caprice.

Other works inspired by Paganini include:

  • Arban - Carnival of Venice
  • Ariya - Igra S Ognyom (Russian Heavy-Metal band " Ariya", album and its title track - Play with Fire)
  • Michael Angelo Batio - "No Boundaries"
  • Jason Becker − 5th Caprice
  • Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco − Capriccio Diabolico for classical guitar is a homage to Paganini, in reference to Paganini supposedly making a pact with the devil
  • Frédéric ChopinSouvenir de Paganini for solo piano (1829; published posthumously)
  • Eliot Fisk - transcribed all 24 Caprices for solo guitar
  • Bela Fleck − "Moto Perpetuo (Bluegrass version)", from Fleck's 2001 album Perpetual Motion, which also contains a more standard rendition of the piece
  • Fritz Kreisler − Paganini Concerto in D Major (recomposed paraphrase of the first movement of the Op. 6 Concerto) for violin and orchestra
  • Franz Lehár − Paganini, fictionalized operetta about Paganini (1925)
  • Franz Liszt − Six Grandes Études de Paganini, S.141 for solo piano (1851) (virtuoso arrangements of 5 caprices, including the 24th, and La Campanella from Violin Concerto No. 2)
  • Yngwie J. Malmsteen − Far Beyond The Sun
  • Nathan Milstein − Paganiniana, an arrangement of the 24th Caprice, with variations based on the other caprices
  • Cesare Pugni - borrowed Paganini's themes for the choreographer Marius Petipa's Venetian Carnival Grand Pas de Deux (aka the Fascination Pas de Deux from Satanella)
  • Uli Jon Roth − "Scherzo Alla Paganini" and "Paganini Paraphrase"
  • Marilyn Shrude − Renewing the Myth for alto saxophone and piano
  • George Rochberg − Caprice Variations (1970), 50 variations for solo violin
  • Robert Schumann − Studies after Caprices by Paganini, Op.3 (1832; piano); 6 Concert Studies on Caprices by Paganini, Op.10 (1833, piano). A movement from his piano work "Carnaval" (Op. 9) is named for Paganini.
  • Karol Szymanowski − Trois Caprices de Paganini, arranged for violin and piano, Op.40 (1918)
  • Steve Vai − "Eugene's Trick Bag" from the movie Crossroads. Based on 5th Caprice.
  • Philip Wilby − Paganini Variations
  • Eugène Ysaÿe − Paganini variations for violin and piano

Fictional portrayals

Paganini's life inspired several films and television series. Most famously, in a highly acclaimed Soviet 1982 miniseries Niccolo Paganini the musician is portrayed by the Armenian stage master Vladimir Msryan. The series focuses on Paganini's persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. Another Soviet cinematic legend, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan plays Paganini's fictionalized arch-rival, an insidious Jesuit official. The information in the series was generally accurate, however it also played to some of the myths and legends rampant during the musician's lifetime. In particular, a memorable scene shows Paganini's adversaries sabotaging his violin before a high-profile performance, causing all strings but one to break during the concert. An undeterred Paganini continues to perform on three, two, and finally on a single string.

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