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Niccolo Paganini (Composer)

Childhood and early career

Niccolo Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy, on October 27 1782, the third of six children of Antonio and Teresa (nee Bocciardo) Paganini. Paganini's father was an unsuccessful trader, but he managed to supplement his income through playing music on the mandolin. At the age of five, Paganini started learning the mandolin from his father, and moved to the violin by the age of seven. His musical talents were quickly recognized, earning him numerous scholarships for violin lessons.

The young Paganini studied under various local violinists, including Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa, but his progress quickly outpaced their abilities. Paganini and his father then traveled to Parma to seek further guidance from Alessandro Rolla. But upon listening to Paganini's playing, Rolla immediately referred him to his own teacher, Ferdinando Paer and, later, Paer's own teacher Gasparo Ghiretti. Though Paganini did not stay long with Paer or Ghiretti, the two had considerable influence on his composition style.

By age 18, Paganini was appointed first violin of the Republic of Lucca, but a substantial portion of his income came from freelancing. His fame as a violinist was only matched by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer. In 1805, Lucca was annexed by Napoleonic France, and the region was ceded to Napoleon's sister, Elisa Baciocchi. Paganini became a violinist for the Baciocchi court, while giving private lessons for her husband, Felix. In 1807, Baciocchi became the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and her court was transferred to Florence. Paganini was part of the entourage, but, towards the end of 1709, he left Baciocchi to resume his freelance career.

Travelling virtuoso
At the end of three years he resumed his travels and his violin playing, returning to Genoa in 1804, where he set to work on some compositions. At this time he became interested in a little girl, Catarina Calcagno, to whom he gave lessons on the violin. She was then about seven years of age, and a few years later she became well known as a concert violinist. [1]

He reappeared when he was 23, becoming director of music to Napoleon's sister Elisa Baciocchi, Princess of Lucca, when he wasn't touring. He soon became a legend for his unparalleled mastery of the violin, with debuts in Milan in 1813, Vienna 1828, and both London and Paris in 1831. Paganini was one of the first musicians, if not the first, to tour as a solo artist, without supporting musicians. He became one of the first superstars of public concertizing. He made a fortune as a touring musician, and was uncanny in his ability to charm an audience.

Paganini's signature violin, Il Cannone fabricated in 1742 by Giuseppe Antonio Guarnieri del Gesu, was his favourite. He named it "The Cannon" because of the powerful and explosive resonance he was able to produce from it. Its strings are nearly on the same plane, as opposed to most violins, the strings of which are distinctly arched to prevent accidentally bowing extra strings. The stringing of Il Cannone may have allowed Paganini to play on three or even four strings at once. Il Cannone is now in the hands of the City of Genoa, where it is exhibited in the town hall. It is taken out and played by its curator once monthly, and periodically loaned out to virtuosi of today.


Niccolo PaganiniIn Paris in 1833, he commissioned a viola concerto from Hector Berlioz, who produced Harold in Italy for him, but Paganini never played it.

His health deteriorated due to mercury poisoning by the mercury compound used at that time to treat syphilis.[citation needed] The disease caused him to lose the ability to play violin, and he retired in ca.1834. He died of throat cancer in Nice on 27 May, 1840.

He left behind a series of sonatas, caprices, six violin concerti, string quartets, and numerous guitar works.

The orchestral parts of Paganini's works are polite, unadventurous in scoring, and supportive. Critics of Paganini find his concerti long-winded and formulaic: one fast rondo finale could often be switched for another. During his public career, the violin parts of the concertos were kept secret. Paganini would rehearse his orchestra without ever playing the full violin solos. At his death, only two had been published. Paganini's heirs have cannily released his concertos one at a time, each given their second debut, over many years, at well-spaced intervals. There are now six published Paganini violin concerti (although the last two are missing their orchestral parts). His more intimate compositions for guitar and string instruments, particularly the violin, have yet to become part of the standard repertoire.

Paganini developed the genre of concert variations for solo violin, characteristically taking a simple, apparently naive theme, and alternating lyrical variations with a ruminative, improvisatory character that depended for effect on the warmth of his phrasing, with bravura extravagances that left his audiences gasping.


Paganini and the progression of violin technique
The Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis once referred to Paganini as a phenomenon rather than a development. Though some of the violinistic techniques frequently employed by Paganini were already present, most accomplished violinists of the time focused on intonation and bowing techniques, the so-called right-hand techniques for string players.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was considered a pioneer in transforming the the violin from an ensemble instrument to a solo instrument. In the mean time, the polyphonic capability of the violin was firmly established through the Sonaten und Partiten BWV 1001-1006 of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Other notable violinists included Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), who, in their compositions, reflected the increasing technical and musical demands on the violinist. Although the role of the violin in music had been drastically changed through this period, progress on violin technique was steady but slow up to this point. For any study of techniques requiring agility of the fingers and the bow were still considered unorthodox and discouraged by the established community of violinists.

The first exhaustive exploration of violin technique was found in the 24 caprices of Pietro Locatelli (1693-1746) which, at the time of writing, proved to be too difficult to play, although they are now quite playable. Rudimentary usage of harmonics and left hand pizzicato could be found in the works of August Durand, who allegedly developed said techniques. While it was questionable whether Paganini pioneered many of these violinistic effects that defined his music, it was certain that his mastery of these techniques was instrumental in popularizing their use in regular compositions. Such leaps in violin technique development were only paralleled by the likes of Josef Joachim, and Eugene Ysaye, almost 50 years later.

Another aspect of Paganini's violin techniques concerned his flexibility. He had exceptionally long fingers and was capable of playing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, a feat that is still considered impossible by today's standards. His seemingly unnatural ability might have been a result of Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.


Influence on music and composition

Tomb of Paganini in Parma, ItalyThe writing of violin music was also dramatically changed through Paganini. Even in his youth, he was able to imitate other sounds (such as flatulence, flute, birds) with his violin. Though highly colorful and technically imaginative, Paganini's composition was not considered truly polyphonic. Eugene Ysaye once criticized that the accompaniment to Paganini's music was too "guitar like", lacking any character of polyphonism. Nevertheless, he expanded the timbre of the instrument to levels previously unknown.

Paganini was also the inspiration of many prominent composers. Both "La Campanella" and the A minor caprice (Nr. 24) have been an object of interest for a number of composers. Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Boris Blacher, Andrew Lloyd Webber, George Rochberg and Witold Lutoslawski, among others, wrote well-known variations on its theme.

In performance Paganini enjoyed playing tricks, like tuning one of his strings a semitone high, or playing the majority of a piece on one string after breaking the other three. He astounded audiences with techniques that included harmonics, double stops, pizzicato with the left as well as the right hand, and near-impossible fingering and bowings.




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