This year will mark the 175th anniversary of the death of the legendary violinist Nicoló Paganini. Regarded as the most famous violinist of all time, Paganini is remembered in history for his supreme virtuosity and technique, but his life is also shadowed in mystery and lore.
Born in 1782, Paganini spent most of his childhood in Genoa, Italy, where he was taught music by his father, an amateur musician, and later by Giovanni Cervetto and Giacomo Costa. At age of 13 he was able to raise money to study for a year in Parma, where he studied composition — for, he had already mastered the violin. Later, Paganini found success in Lucca, though audiences criticized his unorthodox behavior on stage (playing jokes, such as animal sounds). Here he also found stable income playing alongside his brother, Carlo, in the republican orchestra. From 1810 onward Paganini toured Europe, playing and composing. More notable events include a series of romantic liaisons (with one he eloped; another gave him his only child, Achille Ciro Alessandro), the publications of his biography by Julius Schottky and a treatise on his technique by Carl Guhr, a late exploration of the solo viola, his appointment by Napoleon’s second wife as advisor to the ducal orchestra in Parma, and the founding of the “Casino Paganini” – a music venue in Paris where he was contracted to give two concerts a week. Throughout his life, Paganini was plagued by ill health, of which his relentless concert schedule was undoubtedly a factor.
His legacy includes works of all kinds for violin, viola, guitar, voice, orchestra, and chamber groups. Similarly to other virtuoso-composers, his music echoed his own style and abilities. His 24 Caprices are now not only standard repertoire for advanced violinists but violist and cellists as well, but when first published they were deemed “unplayable”. Overall, Paganini’s compositions make heavy use of harmonics, double-stops, left-hand pizzicato, ricochet bowing, and scordatura (tuning strings to other pitches).
The reasons for Paganini’s virtuosity have been speculated upon since he was still living. Most famously, he was fabled to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for such prowess. More modern explanations cite his unique posture as an advantage. Many have also posthumously diagnosed the violinist with Marfan Syndrome or another genetic disorder that would affect his anatomy, making his tricks with the violin easier. Whatever the reason for his talent, he has nonetheless been the subject of a number of stage and screen productions in the last century and countless written works.
The Mahoney Music Collection is home to 248 items relating to Paganini, making him one of our largest subjects. Of that number are the first editions of the Guhr treatise and Schottky biography, both from 1830 (pictured), a couple of the earliest publications we have on Paganini. Though most of the items in the collection are biographies, there are also many journal and magazine articles, fiction works, and anecdotes regarding Paganini. Probably the most interesting find is a not-yet-cataloged, privately-published, personal collection of “Paganiniana” from author Geraldine de Courcy, apparently made up of items used when writing her book, “Paganini, the Genoese,” (1957) — which is, itself, in the Mahoney Music Collection.
Information from Grove Music Online, “Paganini, Nicolo,” biography entry by Edward Neill.