Niccolò Paganini

Italian Composer, Violinist, Guitarist and Viola Player (1782, Genoa – 1840, Nice)

Thanks to his great virtuosity and legendary charisma, Niccolò Paganini was the first ever classical musician to spark fervent reactions from the audience, comparable to what a rockstar would trigger. The countless innovations he brought to instrumental technique made him the father of modern violin.

Niccolò Paganini began playing violin at the age of 5. He started playing in public at the age of 11, in churches. The young musician was very precocious; his talent was so great that he quickly outgrew his teachers, who sometimes had little to teach him. He also revealed himself to be an excellent guitarist; he would sometimes switch instruments in the middle of a concert. He became an orchestral musician in 1800 and toured Italy giving concerts. In 1809 he began his career as a soloist. He met enormous success. His technical prowess floored the public. Paganini owed his exceptional, virtuosic talent in part to his anatomy, he was able to hyperextend his fingers. He was made to compete against his contemporaries Charles Philippe Lafont and Karol Lipinsky who had to bow to his talent. 

His incredible fame came with unexpected effects; some suspected that he had made a deal with the devil. His extremely pale complexion and lean figure fed these rumours, and at one point his youthful, sentimental indiscretions put him in prison. He did however accumulate a considerable fortune, which allowed him to, on one hand, collect desirable instruments (he owned a Stradivarius) but also to lose large sums gambling. From 1828 he triumphed abroad, in Vienna, Paris and London. In 1833 he met Hector Berlioz and commissioned a concerto, Harold en Italie, for viola and orchestra. But in 1834 his health deteriorated and he stepped back from performing. He died in Nice in 1840. His nefarious reputation was met with disdain by the Church who refused him a Christian burial. His embalmed body was not buried until 1876, in Parma. 

Niccolò Paganini left behind an incredible body of work for the violin, most notably 6 concertos for violin and orchestra and 24 Caprices for solo violin. His reputation also inspired other major works by famous composers – La Campanella by Franz Liszt (1834), Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Johannes Brahms (1863) and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Serge Rachmaninov (1934). 

Six landmark dates in the life of Niccolò Paganini

1787: First public concerts

1809: Began his soloist career

1824: Met Antonia Bianchi, who gave him a son, Achille Alessandro. 

1828: Toured abroad 

1833: Met Hector Berlioz 

1876: Burial in Parma 

Six Key Works by Niccolò Paganini

1807: Duetto amoroso for Violin and Mandolin 

1816: Concerto no 1 for Violin and Orchestra 

1817: 2 Caprices for Solo Violin 

1820: 15 Quartets for Guitar and Strings (begun in 1806) 

1826: Concerto No. 2 “La Campanella” for Violin and Orchestra 

1834: Sonata per la Grand Viola for Viola and Orchestra