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Nicolo' Paganini

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Nicoḷ Paganini. (Genua, 1782 - Nice, 1840)

Niccolo' Paganini

The history of the modern virtuoso performer begins with Nicoḷ Paganini, who remains a symbol of his profession. He was the son of Antonio Paganini, a cargo handler and shipping clerk who played the mandolin and violin well, and his music-loving wife. Antonio began teaching Nicoḷ to play the mandolin at the age of five and the violin two years later. He made his son practise from morning till night, and when Nicoḷ's concentration faltered his father would deprive him of food. The boy was sustained by his gentle and deeply religious mother. Before long he had outgrown his father's teaching and become the pupil of a theatre orchestra violinist.

He was performing in public by the age of ten, and at 13 he was taken to Parma to study with the famous Alessandro Rolla, who, however, dismissed the boy, telling him that he already knew everything that he (Rolla) could have taught him. Although he continued to study composition and learned various tricks of the fiddler's trade from older violinists, Paganini's way of playing seems to have been original virtually from the start. From 1801 to 1809 he made his base in the town of Lucca, where he played, taught, composed and conducted. (It is generally believed that he was for a time the lover of Princess Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon's sister and Lucca's ruler.)

From 1809 to 1827 he wandered up and down the Italian peninsula, mesmerizing audiences everywhere with his virtuosity, until finally, at the age of 45, he made up his mind to give concerts abroad. The following five years of his career have no parallel in music history: more than a tour, he made a triumphal progress across Europe - a conquest not only of the mass public but also of the most celebrated musicians, who came away from his performances overwhelmed, confused and inspired.

Legends sprang up about Paganini's having learned to play the violin during long years in prison (for having murdered another lover of one of his mistresses), and about a mysterious pact with the devil - which, according to some, accounted for his seemingly flawless playing. For a while Paganini encouraged and ably manipulated these absurd tales, and by the time he tired of and denied them, they had taken root in the public consciousness.

In the years of his greatest success he was attacked for miserliness, but the facts belie this calumny: his frequent performances for charity, his insistence on taking full financial and human responsibility for the son he had had by one of his mistresses, and his gift of 20,000 francs to the little-appreciated Berlioz for the composition of Harold in Italy (which Paganini had commissioned but not appreciated at first) are but a few of many examples of extreme generosity on his part. By his 50th year, Paganini's health had begun to decline seriously (he suffered from a respiratory disease), and so had his fortunes.

He settled in Parma, where he conducted the court orchestra of the Grand Duchess Marie Louise, then he invested his money in a Paris gambling casino, which failed. He died in Nice, but as he had refused the sacraments of the Church, a five-year squabble over his burial ensued. Today, Paganini is recognized as a strange but seminal influence in 19th-century music and the father of modern violin playing.

One of the best known of Paganini's compositions are the 24 Caprices, written around 1817 for solo violin. They are among the most technically difficult music ever written for the instrument, calling for a very wide range of bowing techniques, extremely wide left hand stretches, double stopped trills and harmonics and left hand pizzicati. The last of these pieces, in A minor, is a set of twelve variations, and many other composers have taken its theme as the basis for a set of variations of their own.