At one time I maintained a separate music blog. This post is from those archives.
Imagine this: You’re in a European concert hall, sometime in the years 1809-1834, watching and listening in amazement as a tall, cadaverously thin man with unnaturally large, long-fingered hands performs wild, beautiful, heartbreaking music on a Strad, that most marvelously toned of all violins. Sometimes in his hands the instrument moans throatily, like lovers in their most intimate moments; others, it sings in an almost human voice–a woman’s voice, at that. And just perhaps, you hear a man seated nearby whisper, “Oh, dear Lord, yes–there stands the Devil! See him? There at his right elbow, guiding his arm–There’s no doubt, the story is true! He sold his soul to the devil!! And that woman’s voice–it’s trapped in his violin–she killed herself for love of him and now her voice sings when he plays!”
All these things are somewhat true tales from the life of the great Italian composer and violinist Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840). He didn’t go out of his way, ever, to refute the stories; in fact, he seemed unconsciously to cultivate the image, as does any master showman.
Born in Genoa, Italy, the son of a dockworker, Paganini was a child prodigy who began playing mandolin at five, violin at seven, gave his first public performance at eleven, and along the way exhausted the resources of the finest teachers available; they one by one admitted that they had nothing left to teach this boy. In 1805, Paganini became solo court violinist at the court of Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Princess Elisa Baciocchi, a job he left in 1809. For the remainder of his career, he was a travelling virtuoso, a womanizer, a gambler, a spendthrift, and, ultimately, one of the greatest composers for solo violin who ever lived.
This Caprice in A minor, Op 1, number 24, is arguably his most famous piece. Others are lost; the piece referred to above, where his violin moaned like lovers lost in physical passion, Duetto Amoroso, is one such. And I’d like to think that his Sonata #6 in E minor for violin and guitar is one that sings in the voice of a woman:
Paganini could perform a feat deemed impossible today; his huge hands could span three full octaves across the four strings of a violin, which has given rise to the theory that he most likely suffered from a genetic connective tissue disorder such as Marfan’s or Ehlers-Danlos, both characterized by double and unstable jointedness and both severely affecting internal organs, the heart in particular. He also was never impressive for his good looks:
Given his reputation as a skirtchaser, it’s no surprise he never married: he did father one son by the soprano Antonia Bianchi, legitimating and naming the boy his heir when he was twelve.
Sickly for most of his life, Paganini was diagnosed as syphilitic in 1822, and nearly died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1834, which essentially ended his performing career. He returned to Genoa and remained there for some two years, concentrating on composing and taking a few students, none of whom were as talented as their master. In 1836, he moved to Paris and opened a casino, went broke, and sold off his instruments (including several Strads, Amatis, and at least one Guarneri) to repay his debts. He died, without last rites, on May 27th, 1840, in Nice. Partly because he died unshriven, and partly thanks to the persistent tales that he had sold his soul to Satan, it was many years before he was accorded a final resting place, his body being moved some four times over a fifty-year period before being permanently entombed in 1896.
In Appalachian folklore, the figure of the fiddler who sold his soul to the devil is not an uncommon one. That may be one reason why, when I first heard his story and music, I was enthralled. Good music and a spooky back story–I’m sold on it.