Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840) was arguably the greatest violinist of all time, leaving his mark on history as a composer, accomplished guitarist and the best virtuoso violin soloist the world had ever known. Hailing from Genoa, Italy, he began the violin at 7 years of age, making his public debut at age 9, while receiving instruction from Giacomo Costa and later under Alessandro Rolla. His father was so strict that Nicolò wouldn’t be allowed to eat until he would have practiced enough time, a habit that would carry on into his adulthood as he was rumoured to have practised incredibly long hours each day.
He suffered from Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that leaves one typically very tall and thin, flexible with increased dexterity in the fingers. It is said that he could bend his finger to 90 degrees with his hand, giving him quite an advantage for playing the violin very fast and stretching over the finger board like no one else could, thus turning a misfortune into one of the largest contributors to Paganini’s virtuosity. Amongst his musical compositions Paganini is surely mostly known for his 24 Caprices which are considered amongst the most difficult music ever composed for the violin. Composed in three different stages of his life, the first of which whilst serving a prison term that has fuelled the rumour mill and left much speculation over how long and what for. Each Caprice addresses different technical challenges requiring a high-level command of the instrument to perform.
In Caprice #1 for example, one must contort the hand in extended and contracted positions all throughout and in measure 45 the fingerings and hand position is inverted to require the weaker fingers (3rd and 4th) to act as the strong and flexible fingers, usually the role of the 1st and 2nd. To add to the challenge of flexibility and strength, the bow must be crossing all four strings in an even spiccato and the brisk tempo requires one to be precise and accurate at lighting speed. Another great example of his dexterity can be seen in Caprice #12, where one must regularly stretch to intervals of up to 11ths and 12ths (see measures 15 and 16). Whereas the typical work for violinists would rarely require them to play an interval wider than 10ths, already considered to be difficult enough and strenuous for one to regularly practise and stretch out their hand.
While performing sometimes Paganini was said to enjoy showing off by for instance breaking 3 strings and leaving only 1 on which to play a musical piece. He also amazed audiences with techniques he took to a whole new level for his time such as his left-hand pizzicato.
There are a number of instruments associated with Paganini, including violins by Antonio Stradivari, Matteo Goffriller, Gasparo da Salò, Nicolo Amati and Carlo Bergonzi.
However, his most well-known instrument is the “Il Cannone (Cannon) Guarnerius” made by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, who is also referred to as “Del Gesu”. It gained the name “Cannon” for its notorious power and tonal qualities. For a long duration of this violin’s life, it was believed to be made in 1742, however more recently it’s label was examined to reveal that it is actually dated as 1743.
It is believed that prior to owning the “Cannon”, Paganini lost his concert instrument due to gambling habits and shortly after, he was lent this Guarneri violin by a businessman for one of his concerts (c.1802). After hearing Paganini perform with this violin, the businessman was amazed by his skill and the violin’s sound, resulting with him insisting in Paganini keeping it; perhaps he simply didn’t deem himself worthy enough of owning it. Clearly his favourite instrument, Paganini played on the “Cannon” for the rest of his life, and bequeathed it to the City of Genoa upon his death.
Adding to the interest and fascination of his violin and virtuosity is the complex personality illustrated by his extreme lifestyle that really draws one’s attention to the legend of Nicolò Paganini. Paganini was an alcoholic and a notorious womaniser who once quipped “I am not handsome, but when women hear me play, they come crawling to my feet”. As a gambler he was not as proficient as a violinist, which led him to some grave consequences such as losing all he had, including his precious violin which he once lost at a hand of poker (as mentioned above).
Audiences all over lacked an explanation for his virtuosity, so people rationalized this phenomenon by concluding that he may have made a pact with the devil and eventually started calling him ‘the son of the devil’.
The Church refused Paganini’s burial because of his reputation as ‘the devil’s violinist’. Notwithstanding his son’s efforts, Paganini’s corpse was left unburied for 5 years. Today his body lies in Parma.
1) 12 Nicolo` Paganini Facts – Interesting Facts About Niccolo` Paganini, CMUSE, 20 August 2018 <https://www.cmuse.org/niccolo-paganini-facts/>
2) Encyclopaedia Britannica, 20 August 2018 <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Niccolo-Paganini>
3) 12 Niccolo` Paganini Facts – Interesting Facts About Niccolo` Paganini, (n1).
4) “Cannon” Photos by Peter Biddulph from <https://tarisio.com/cozio-archive/cozio-carteggio/the-paganini-cannon-violin/”
5) Tarisio, “Cannon”, Cozio Archive <https://tarisio.com/cozio-archive/property/?ID=40130”
6) Paganini’s date of acquiring “Cannon” <http://www.giordanoviolins.com/english/cannone.html”
7) Nicolo Paganini, 20 August 2018 <http://www.paganini.com/nicolo/nicindex.htm>
Malta Fine Instrument Society article contributors:
Reggie Clews, Niam Chauhan, Miguel Balzan
Read this article as a PDF at: Malta Fine Instrument Society Paganini