Niccolo Paganini

1782 - 1840

Niccolò (or Nicolò) Paganini (27 October 1782 – 27 May 1840) was an Italian violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer. He was the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his time, and left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique. His 24 Caprices for Solo Violin Op. 1 are among the best known of his compositions, and have served as an inspiration for many prominent composers.

Paganini was born in Genoa in Italy. He was given a violin by his parents, who cherished hopes he would become a great virtuoso - something his father sought to encourage by locking the boy in a room to practise for hours at a time. At the age of 11 he made his first public appearance, performing a set of his own variations to a rapt audience; at 13 he made His first tour.

In 1801 Paganini moved to Lucca and soon became leader of the new national orchestra. There he was persuaded by his lover to take up the guitar, and wrote several delightful compositions, including 12 sonatas for violin and guitar. In 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte's sister. Princess Elisa, was installed m Lucca. Paganini improvised for her a piece on two strings of his violin, intending to represent a pair of lovers; he commemorated Napoleon's birthday with his Sonata Napoleone for performance entirely on one string.

Paganini left Lucca in 1809 and toured Italy, mesmerizing audiences with his brilliant musicianship, performing any piece of music at sight. In order to show off his abilities he composed pieces ot exceptional difficulty, one such being the 24 Caprices for solo violin, whose technical demands are so great that for a long time they were thought of as unperformable except by their composer. He turned his hand to orchestral works as well, writing numerous violin concertos and the Le streghe (Witches' Dance) variations for violin and orchestra. An aura of mystery began to surround Paganini. With his unkempt appearance and wild stare, he was thought by many to derive his uncanny gifts from a pact with the devil, and was dubbed "the devil's son."

In 1824 Paganini started a liaison with Antonia Bianchi. When the relationship later faltered, he gained custody of their son, Achille. Paganini gave triumphant performances in Vienna, Berlin, and Pans from 1 828 to 1831, but his experiences in London were less happy. Exorbitant ticket pricing gave rise to a furore of protest conducted through the pages of The Times. The admission prices were reduced, and The Times was forced to acknowledge Paganini's genius, although a reputation for meanness was less easily dispelled. From 1834 increasing illness put an end to Paganini's playing career. He developed an interest in gambling and even bought a stake in a Parisian casino, before succumbing in 1 840 to cancer of the larynx.

"He is alone with the answer for which there is no question. The saved and the damned are the same."

Clockmaker on the music of Paganini

Key Works

Violin Concerto No.1 in E flat major

Believed to have been written in 1817, this extremely popular work was premiered in 1819, and was always a show-stopper for Paganini. Opening with a theatrically expectant orchestral introduction, rather reminiscent of the Italian operas of Rossini, the violin entry is virtuosic, but ultimately vocally inspired, and frequently lyrical. The tragic and operatic slow movement reminds us that Paganini was equally renowned for his ability to move as to dazzle, which he does with high chords, brilliant runs, and “ricochet bowing” in the finale.

Allegro Maestoso 
Adagio 
Rondo, Allegro Spirituoso

Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor ('La campanella'), Op. 7, MS 48

Violin Concerto No. 3 in E Major

I. Introduzione. Andantino - Allegro marziale 00:00
II. Adagio. Cantabile spianato 17:49
III. Polacca. Andantino vivace 25:04

24 Caprices

Although Paganini had probably composed his caprices by 1805, he guarded their secrets closely, only publishing them in 1820, when he provocatively dedicated them “to the artists”, knowing that few, if any, of his contemporaries would be able to play them. Each is a mini-masterpiece, exploring a different aspect of violin technique, and together they provide an almost complete
compendium of the instrument’s possibilities. Requiring a hand that is both large and flexible to encompass their technical difficulties, few performers have played them complete, but their influence goes well beyond the violin; Liszt and Schumann were inspired to write piano transcriptions of some of them, and the theme of the final caprice has been used for famous works by composers as diverse as Brahms, Rachmaninov, Lutoslawski, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

0:00
 Caprice No.1 in E major "Arpeggios" (Andante)
1:49 Caprice No.2 in B minor (Moderato)
5:00 Caprice No.3 in E minor (Sostenuto - Presto - Sostenuto)
8:20 Caprice No.4 in C minor "Thirds" (Maestoso)
16:05 Caprice No.5 in A minor (Agitato) 
18:16 Caprice No.6 in G minor "The Trill / Tremolo" (Lento)
23:46 Caprice No.7 in A minor (Posato)
28:02 Caprice No.8 in E-flat major (Maestoso)
31:34 Caprice No.9 in E major "The Hunt / La chasse" (Allegretto) 
34:40 Caprice No.10 in G minor (Vivace)
37:00 Caprice No.11 in C major (Andante - Presto - Andante)
41:44 Caprice No.12 in A-flat major (Allegro)
44:52 Caprice No.13 in B-flat major "The Devil's Laughter" (Allegro)
47:28 Caprice No.14 in E-flat major (Moderato)
48:53 Caprice No.15 in E minor (Posato)
52:19 Caprice No.16 in G minor (Presto)
53:53 Caprice No.17 in E-flat major (Sostenuto - Andante)
57:23 Caprice No.18 in C major (Corrente - Allegro)
1:00:14 Caprice No.19 in E-flat major (Lento - Allegro assai)
1:02:43 Caprice No.20 in D major (Allegretto)
1:06:20 Caprice No.21 in A major (Amoroso - Presto)
1:09:56 Caprice No.22 in F major (Marcato)
1:12:29 Caprice No.23 in E-flat major (Posato - Minore - Posato)
1:17:03 Caprice No.24 in A minor (Tema - Variazioni - Finale)

Niccolò Paganini (1819),
by 
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

1831 bulletin advertising a performance of Paganini

Tomb of Paganini in Parma, Italy

Paganini's influence was twofold. For other performers he provided a model of technical brilliance and advanced the cult of the virtuoso; for composers he pointed to the possibilities of including virtuoso elements m their music. Chopin's dazzling Etudes owe a debt to Paganmi; Brahms and Schumann were also admirers. A final indication of his appeal is the range of composers who have composed variations based on his Caprice Nо. 24 in A minor, including Brahms, Rachmaninov, Lutoslawski, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Bust of Niccolò Paganini by David d'Angers

"Le Streghe"

After four years as a travelling virtuoso, Paganini finally felt prepared to make his debut at La Scala in Milan. At the ballet, he heard the melody of Sussmayer’s Le streghe (The Witches) and decided to capitalize on its immense popularity by writing a set of variations. After a majestic orchestral introduction, the violin enters, teasing the audience with a simple, gracious melody which is not the expected theme. Only after a repeat of this section does the actual witches’ tune begin, but again performed quite unassumingly, raising expectation even further before the first variation where the fireworks finally begin.
The listener is then subjected to a rollercoaster ride demonstrating Paganini’s astounding techniques. Audiences were incredulous on hearing the work and rumours soon spread that its composer was in leaguewith the devil.

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