Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Little Pagan

Portrait of Niccolò Paganini by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) in 1819) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

We mark the death of the violinistic wizard, composer, and showman extraordinaire Niccolò Paganini, who died 179 years ago today in the Mediterranean resort city of Nice on May 27, 1840.

Woman with Marfan Syndrome
Woman with Marfan Syndrome, making us squirm.

Marfan Syndrome (or “MFS”) is a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. The syndrome is named after the French pediatrician Antoine Marfan, who first identified it in 1891. For those – like me – who must know, the gene linked to the condition was identified in 1991 by Francesco Ramirez at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Folks with Marfan Syndrome are characteristically tall and slim; with long arms, legs, fingers and toes. Their joints are typically flexible; sometime crazy flexible, the sort of crazy flexible that makes the rest of us squirm with discomfort when we see such a person casually twist him or herself up like a human pretzel.

Marfan Syndrome can affect the heart as well, and thus the American Heart Association, ever the Helpy Helperton, has made recommendations regarding the sorts of activities folks with Marfan can and should not engage in. 

The American Heart Association lists as “high risk” activities for Marfan sufferers bodybuilding, weightlifting (non-free and free weights), ice hockey, rock climbing, windsurfing, surfing, and scuba diving. (Should we assume that bungee jumping, sky diving, and alligator wrestling – which are not on the list – are all okay? Just asking.)

Conversely, we are told that “probably permissible activities” include bowling, golf, skating (but not ice hockey), snorkeling, brisk walking, treadmill, stationary biking, modest hiking, and doubles tennis.

Let us now add to this list of “probably permissible activities” playing the violin.

Niccolò Paganini almost certainly had Marfan Syndrome, which allowed him – physically – to do things on the fiddle that no one before him had considered possible. He was also a genius (in the true spirit of that word and certainly not in our modern and trivialized sense), and thus his violin playing and his compositions advanced violin technique more, in a couple of decades, than might otherwise have occurred over the course of a century. 

For example.

While he did not invent it, Paganini “institutionalized” the left hand pizzicato by using it constantly in his performances and employing it in his compositions. Likewise, his use of harmonics: a technique used only occasionally before him became a standard feature in his violin music. The flexibility of his wrist allowed him to rapidly alternate bowing techniques in a manner unheard of to his time; we’re talking here about the rapid alternation of such bowing techniques as legato (where the bow stays on the string; notes are smoothly connected with a single stroke of the bow); détaché (each note played by a separate bow stroke, though the bow stays on the string); staccato (played in a single bow stroke, though the bow springs slightly off the string between notes); spiccato (rapid detached bowing: each note is played by a separate bow stroke while the bow bounces off the string after each note), saltando or jeté (a sort of “super staccato” in which repeated notes are played in a single bow stroke but the bow is allowed to bounce off the string between notes); and martellato (“hammer-stroke” bowing, typically played using downbows only, employing the bottom third – or the “frog” – of the bow).

(Was that all too-much-information? Nah. That was just String Instrument 101 for composers and conductors. If you don’t know how the bow works you cannot possibly compose for or conduct stringed instruments.)

Paganini’s use of what were considered not just awkward but bizarre, even impossible fingerings allowed him to play at speeds no one had ever conceived of before. The sheer velocity with which he played was jaw-dropping: gob-smacking; Paganini was regularly timed out at being able to play twelve notes per second.  

Paganini circa 1801
Paganini circa 1801, at the age 19

He was born in Genoa, Italy, on October 27 of 1782. He was an absolute natural, a musical prodigy on the mandolin, guitar, and violin. His abilities as a violinist routinely outpaced his teachers, and thus he developed his technique pretty much by his own devices. 

In 1801, the not-yet 19-year-old Paganini was designated as the “first violinist of the Republic of Lucca.” By the age of thirty – 1812 – he was mesmerizing audiences across Italy. In 1820 – at the age of 38 – the Italian firm of Ricordi published Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin, 24 of them in all, which other violinists pronounced as being “unplayable”. He was considered a national treasure, whose fame as a violinist “was matched only by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer.”

If Paganini were alive today, everyone on the planet would have known who he was by the age of twenty. He would have appeared on and won Italia’s Got Talent (a real show, created by the ubiquitous Simon Cowell). He would have been drafted to compete on Dancing With the Stars; heck, with his Marfan’s he might have been capable of creating some wild new moves. He’d have recording contracts coming out of his proverbial wazoo and given his stage presence and showmanship, he’d making music videos and concertizing in arenas and stadiums.

But in 1800 and 1810 and 1820 – no radio, no recordings, no cable, no Simon Cowell – the only way to have experienced Paganini was to hear him live. And in those days, the only way to hear him live was to hear him in Italy. Yes, word of this phenomenal violinist filtered out of Italy, but for the musical cognoscenti of Vienna and Paris, for example, talk was cheap. To this day, we might read about some young phenom playing Double “A” ball in Omaha, but we won’t pay much attention to him until he’s called up to the show, to the big leagues. And so it was with Paganini, who didn’t make his “big league” debut until the advanced age of 46 when he finally traveled beyond the borders of Italy and gave fourteen concerts in Vienna between March 29 and July 24, 1828. 

And how did those hard-bitten, cynical, been-there-done-that Viennese audiences respond to Paganini’s violinistic pyrotechnics? They went ape, bonkers, they drooled, they soiled themselves; the Emperor created an honorary position for him, naming Paganini “Chamber Virtuoso of the Court”. The city of Vienna awarded him the coveted Medal of St. Salvatore. It was an auspicious European “debut”. Paganini became an instant legend. According to Alan Walker:

“Paganini was the supreme artist who could do anything. His virtuosity was such that in order to account for it at all, people supposed him to be in league with the Devil. Rumor had it that his fourth string [the highest, the “e” string], from which he could draw ravishing sounds, was made from the intestine of his mistress, who he had murdered with his own hands. It was whispered that he had languished in jail for twenty years as a punishment for his crime, with a violin as his sole companion, and, being uniquely isolated from the outside world, had thus wrested from the instrument its innermost secrets. 

[Professor Walker will forgive me this brief interruption to point out that YOU CANNOT BUY PUBLICITY LIKE THAT! YOU JUST CAN’T!]

“True or false, there was no doubting his virtuosity. He created and solved his own technical problems. Everywhere his works were regarded as unplayable, until Paganini showed up and played them. If a string broke, he could play equally well on three; if another broke, he could play equally well on two; in fact, his specialty was to play an entire piece on one string alone, with which he would bring the house down.

Paganini, concert advertisement, 1831: “The Modern Orpheus”
Paganini, concert advertisement, 1831: “The Modern Orpheus”

“It’s easy to understand how the dark rumors about Paganini circulated when we consider his appearance. He dressed from head to foot in black. His body, wracked with pain, was slowly wasting away from syphilis. He glided rather than walked across the stage – like a menacing vulture gently floating into position to consume its prey. His eyes had receded deep into their sockets, and this, together with his waxen complexion, gave him a spectral appearance which was enhanced by the dark-blue glasses he wore. The mercury prescribed for his syphilis had attacked his stomach and rotted his jawbone, causing his teeth to decay and fall out and his mouth to disappear into his chin. When Paganini played, the macabre impression was that of a bleached skull with a violin tucked under its chin. Even his name – Paganini [meaning “little pagan”] – reinforced the satanic aura which surrounded his personality.” 

Paganini didn’t just look tough, he was tough. He’d hang out with mobsters and gamble all night long in smoke-filled rooms, winning or losing what were fortunes of money on the turn of a card. He’d leave these “dens of iniquity”, squinting in the morning sunlight, and head straight to the concert hall in the same wrinkled, tobacco-smelling evening suit he’d worn all night.

No one had ever heard anything like him. The critic Leigh Hunt was at Paganini’s London premiere on June 23, 1831. He wrote:

“His playing is indeed marvelous. What other players can do well, he does a hundred times better. We never heard such playing before; nor had we imagined it. His bow perfectly talks, it remonstrates, supplicates, answers, holds a dialogue.

In a word, we never heard anything like any part of his performance. The people sit astonished, venting themselves in whispers of ‘Wonderful’! and ‘Good God!’ and other symptoms of English amazement; and when the applause comes, some of them take the opportunity of laughing, out of pure inability to express their feelings otherwise.”

Franz Liszt at the age of 21
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) in 1832, at the age of 21


In April of 1832 a cholera epidemic raged through Paris. Paganini gave a benefit concert at the Opera House for its victims; it was his second Paris concert. The pianist Franz Liszt, not quite 21 years old, was in the audience. Hearing Paganini, witnessing his virtuosity and showmanship and their combined effects on the audience was, for Liszt, his “eureka moment”: the blinding revelation that changed his life. He perceived in Paganini someone who not only played the violin better than anyone else, but someone who played the violin as well as it could possibly be played. And Liszt was aware of the fact that for all the fine piano players hanging out and performing in Paris, the “Paganini of the piano” had yet to appear. It was a role that Liszt decided to take for himself. 

Liszt wrote his student Pierre Wolff:

“‘And I too am a painter’ cried Michelangelo the first time he beheld a masterpiece [Actually, it was Antonio da Correggio, but okay]. I cannot leave off repeating those words since Paganini’s latest performance. What a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens, what sufferings, What misery! What tortures in those four strings! His expression, his manner of phrasing, they are his very soul!”  

Liszt would go on to pattern his career after Paganini, and in doing so he changed the very face and nature of Western music and media.

Paganini went on to make and lose fortunes; he owned, played, and pawned some of the greatest violins ever made, including Amatis, Guarneris, and Stradaveris! 

The circumstances around Paganini’s death were as controversial as those that dogged him during his life. He took ill in Nice in May of 1840. The Bishop of Nice sent a priest to administer the last rites, but Paganini – perhaps not fit as a fiddle but not believing himself to be on his deathbed – sent the priest home. A week later, on May 27, 1840, Paganini died suddenly from internal bleeding, before a priest could be summoned. The rumor instantly circulated that he had refused last rites because he had – in fact – been in league with the devil! The Church establishment decided to be peevish about Paganini, whose corpse sat in a box in a basement for 36 years – until 1876! – when he was finally allowed to be buried in “sacred” ground in Parma, Italy, where he rests to this day. 

For lots more on Paganini and Franz Liszt, I would humbly directly your attention to my Great Courses, Great Masters biography of Liszt.

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