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On The Devil’s Violinist

Niccolò Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840), the most celebrated Italian violin virtuoso of his time, left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique. He had an incredible ability to play 12 notes, and three octaves per second by pulling the bow once. He, despite being a lewd person, used to create magic of melodies with his violin. His black dress, pale long face, and melody also created many miraculous myths. The global community is marking Paganini’s 240th Birth Anniversary.

Smooth and peaceful life does not give birth to Art. Those, who have never experienced doubt, crisis, humiliation, and hatred, do not realise the essence of Art. For a Creator, blood from mental wounds is a source of joy. This pain persuades the creator to get closer to the mystery of Art. An artist feels fine craftsmanship even before leaving this world. While pursuing ardently the different nuances of Music, Painting, Sculpture, et al… artists reveal life from different perspectives through visual and audio medium. It may be conjectured that the journey of an artist is not only endless, but also unstable. There is a world bound by a set of rules that are possibly meant for the average person, and also there is a world of adventurism. Between these two, an artist tries to balance her/his own life. Common people call these not-so-normal people Bohemians. However, these are the people who enrich the human civilisation with their creativity.

Niccolò Paganini

Paganini was born on October 27, 1782 in the Italian city of Genoa. Although he earned respect and love for his capability extraordinaire to play violin, people were afraid of him. While some thought that he was a metaphorical musical God, others believed that he literally got his virtuosity from a deal with the Devil, else how could he play the violin like no one before? Hence, Paganini was known under the nickname of ‘The Devil’s Violinist‘ for his unique ability to play the violin. He was particularly known for playing without sheet music, memorising everything instead, and could play up to 12 notes per second. He was the third of six children of Antonio and Teresa Paganini. Antonio failed miserably in business, and started playing mandolin to run his family. At the age of five, Niccolò learnt to play mandolin, as his father rightly realised his musical talent. A couple of years later, he was known to have picked up the violin.

Few years later, Antonio took his son to viola and violin virtuoso, composer, conductor and music teacher Alessandro Rolla (April 22, 1757 – September 15, 1841) of Parma. It is heard that Paganini used to practice for 15-16 hours every day. Apart from following the notation, he sincerely learnt the technique of fingering, the rules of bowing, and also the intricacies of getting into the composition. One needs a mentor, as it is not possible for a person to learn everything by listening to concerts or following notations. His progress and performance amazed Rolla! Realising that the little boy was a genius, he, immediately, sent Paganini to his own teacher Ferdinando Paer (July 1, 1771 – May 3, 1839), an Italian composer known for his operas and oratorios. After a few days of training, Paer himself realised that he had nothing left to teach this boy. Then, he referred Paganini to his teacher Gasparo Ghiretti (1747 – 1797). Both Paer and Ghiretti had a considerable influence on Paganini’s compositions, although he did not study with them for long. Meanwhile, Paganini decided to play guitar, and he did not take much time to master the art of playing the instrument. As melody was there in Paganini’s blood and soul, he could play any instrument in his own style. In fact, the guitar helped Paganini overcome loneliness.

Gasparo Ghiretti

As he became famous as a violinist by performing in different Italian cities, Paganini also became addicted to gambling, alcohol, and women. Although he got fame in Italy by taking part in various concerts, other European cities were unaware of his talent. In the meantime, his performance during a famous concert in Italy triggered a storm. After the show, some famous composers contacted Paganini, and he realised that he would have to visit other countries. In 1827, Pope Leo XII honoured him with the Order of the Golden Spur. His global journey began from the Austrian capital of Vienna in August 1828, and after that, music lovers in Germany, Poland, France, Britain, and other European countries experienced his talent, and recognised Paganini as the best violinist of all time.

Paganini often became exhausted, as he suffered from various ailments throughout his life. Many concerts had to be cancelled at the last minute due to his illness. He was diagnosed with syphilis in early 1822, and his remedy, which included mercury and opium, came with serious physical and psychological side effects. Later in 1834, he was treated for tuberculosis in Paris. Then, Paganini decided not to perform in public concerts anymore, and returned to Genoa. Upon his arrival in Genoa, he concentrated mainly on writings, as he wanted to keep a record of the art of playing violin, his compositions, and various chords. He also had a plan to publish his works.

Tomb of Paganini in Parma, Italy

Paganini arrived in Paris again in 1836 with a different plan. This time, he opened a casino in the French capital. However, the violinist, and not the gamblers who used to visit his casino, faced a financial crisis. The situation prompted him to auction off his furniture and even his favourite musical instruments, in order to pay off his debts. After recovering a little, he left for Marseille in 1838. After spending a few months in Marseille, he reached Nice, where his physical condition became critical. When a priest was sent to him for the final prayers in May 1840, Paganini did not allow him to enter his residence. Perhaps, he thought that he would recover soon. Unfortunately, one of the best violinists of all time left this world on May 27, 1840, and as no priest was present before his death and because of the myth that a Devil possessed his soul, the Catholic Church in Genoa refused to bury his body. He was, finally, buried at a cemetery in Parma in 1876.

There were so many stories about this musical genius. While some imposed divinity on Paganini, others said that a Devil possessed his soul. His talent of playing 12 notes, and three octaves per second by pulling the bow once gave birth to these stories. His supernatural power to create melody made Paganini a mysterious character. People started believing that the person, who used to create magic with incredible technique while playing the violin, was not Paganini, but a Devil, as it was not possible for a human being to create such a melody. As per one such story, he killed one of his girl-friends, and used her intestine to make the strings of his violin!

Paganini’s violin

Paganini’s appearance and features of his dress, too, were strange! His long chin, pale skin, unusually long fingers, performance on the stage in black attire all the time, moving the bow at a gentle pace or at a high speed, and creating the desired melody by infallibly pressing the fingers made him more mysterious. Later, scientists speculated that there was a genetic syndrome behind his unusually fast playing technique, saying that the syndrome dramatically increases flexibility of muscles.

Paganini’s biopic ‘The Devil’s Violinist‘ was released in 2013 in which German violinist David Garrett played the role of the 19th Century Italian composer. There were many compositions created by Paganini in this film. David also played Pagalini’s famous creations, ‘Caprice No. 24‘ and ‘Carnival of Venice‘, in A-Minor. English Director Bernard Rose directed the movie, while David and Franck van der Heijden composed the music. Incidentally, it was David Garrett who was named the world’s fastest violinist in the Guinness Book of World Records!

David Garrett playing the role of Paganini in ‘The Devil’s Violinist

It is often mentioned that Paganini enjoyed the company of countless women throughout his life. Some of them were dancers and opera singers. He had a long relationship with singer (according to many, dancer) Antonia Bianchi. They first met in Milan in 1813. Together, they performed all over Italy. Although Bianchi’s talent fascinated Paganini, their relationship ended in Vienna in 1828, three years after the birth of their son Achille on July 23, 1825. The relationship between Paganini and Bianchi had no legal validity. Later, Paganini developed a very close relationship with his son, as Achille accompanied his father on many trips.

Antonia Bianchi

Paganini created a new style of playing violin. The word Caprice means a sudden change in mood or behaviour. In the case of music, it means any small composition whose style is completely independent and unique. It is also characterised by speed and sharpness of tone. Among all the features of Paganini’s Caprices, Caprice No. 24 in A-Minor is the most famous. Paganini’s style of music influenced world-famous composers, like Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann.

Watch: Caprice No. 24 in A-Minor

Often, their inner doubts drive these geniuses. They don’t like family life, as the sound of melody triggers storms inside their heart, and the fire of creativity burns their mind. The pain helps them create the most extraordinary compositions. After noticing the miraculous movements of his fingers and swinging of the bow like a storm, the audience came to the conclusion that Paganini exchanged his soul with a Devil. Still, it is nice to see that Paganini successfully created his own aura across the globe by using the third (Ga-ndhar), fifth (Pa-ncham), and seventh (Ni-shad, both flat and normal) notes of the Eastern octaves or the Hindustani Classical Music, with success!

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