You are in a concert hall in the 1820s. Many others are there, too, all gathered to hear the great violinist from Italy. No, they say, Niccolò Paganini is not a “great violinist.” He is something more. He plays so much better, uses so many new techniques that he has reinvented the instrument. Others whisper something else: No normal person, they say, could play that fast, or that well. Paganini has struck a bargain with the devil: his eternal soul in exchange for the chance to play like a god.
The musicians on stage know better than to believe this rumor, but they, too, are curious. For the upcoming concerto (Paganini wrote at least six), the star has rehearsed only the parts where violin and orchestra join together. The solo passages—the most important part of the performance—he has kept secret!
Then comes the concert. Paganini overwhelms the listeners. Left-hand pizzicato at lightning speed. Double-stops at triple speed. Double-stop harmonics. Ricochet bowing faster than the eye can catch. Devil or no devil, people agree, Paganini has reinvented the violin. Then the orchestra rests, and Paganini, with charm to match his his skill, warms the audience with music for solo violin. You might hear his 24 Caprices—a work that, even today, taxes any violinist. Or perhaps you’ll hear Le streghe, the variations whose theme Suzuki included in Book 2 as “Witches Dance.” In any case, Paganini will draw heavily on his own compositions. No one else’s offers the astonishing challenges he enjoys. At times he might deliberately break a string in mid-song only to finish the performance, uninterrupted, on the remaining strings…
Concerts like this happened repeatedly from the time Paganini was in his 20s, first throughout Italy, then in European cities from Austria to Scotland. Paganini was among the first—perhaps the very first—musician to tour as a soloist. And his success made him rich. Just like some of today’s celebrities, Paganini handled his wealth poorly at first, and ran up gambling debts so high he even had to pawn his own violin. His spending settled down, but his touring kept up, until failing health forced him to stop in the 1830s. He died at age 57.
Paganini’s music and technique showed composers like Chopin, Schumann and Berlioz how virtuosic technique could be more than just flash: how it could also make music more expressive. Above all, he changed the music of Franz Liszt, whose solo career, stage showmanship, and brilliance at the piano matched Paganini’s on violin. For violinists, the impact of Paganini was profound. A century earlier, a different Italian named Arcangelo Corelli had first proved the violin’s promise as a solo instrument. Paganini set a new standard. As he lived before sound recordings, we can hear today him only indirectly, in the playing of virtuosi whom he inspired. But if one travels to Paganini’s native city of Genoa, his favorite violin—he called it “my cannon” because of its powerful sound—is still there in silent display. A visitor could look. Then, imagine a concert hall in the 1820s…
© Andrew Campbell