The Devil in disguise ...

01:00 Mon 11th Feb 2002 The AnswerBank

Q.� Who was the first musician to attract fame, fortune and bad habits < xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

A.� That would be violinist Niccolo Paganini, who led an unusual life, including all of the above.

Q.� What was unusual about him

A.� Firstly that he survived to adulthood. Paganini was born in Genoa in 1782, and barely survived an attack of measles as a child. It was only by chance that he was found to be alive just as he was about to be buried! The attack left him in fragile health for the remainder of his life, and contributed to his various afflictions, and his public image, about which, more later.

Paganini's father saw his son's prodigious talent as a violinist and embarked on a training regime that would be called child abuse in modern times. As soon as Paganini was 16, and able to support himself as a concert musician, he left home and started making up for lost time with his principle pleasures - gambling and women, in that order.

Q.� So that was the beginning of the bad habits

A.� It was�... Paganini was addicted to gambling, often owing far more than he earned, and having to pawn his violin to pay debts, or drum up enough money to gamble again. He was loaned a valuable Guarnerius violin by an admiring patron, who having seen Paganini play, assured him he could keep the priceless instrument. Paganini almost lost the violin in gambling, and finally realised that his gambling must stop, and it did, from then until his death he never gambled again.

Q.� What calibre of musician was Paganini

A.� Basically, he was, and is the finest technical exponent of his chosen instrument who has ever lived. From the years 1801 to 1805 Paganini retired from the public stage, learning to play and write for the guitar, and honing his already prodigious violin technique even further. It was after his re-emergence that the legends about Paganini began to emerge and circulate, adding to the mystery that already surrounded him.

Q.� What were the stories

A.� You have to remember that Paganini lived in superstitious times. God was to be feared, the devil more so, and it is easy to see why the legend that Paganini had sold his soul for such talent could form and grow.


His bout of childhood measles left Paganini a sickly individual, with a pale complexion offset by piercing dark eyes. He had incredibly sensitive hearing�- he could pick up small sounds at great distance, and loud conversation caused him considerable physical pain. The fevers that plagued him throughout his life meant that he tired easily, and spent long periods sleeping. Paganini lived on a meagre diet, which left him thin and gaunt, exaggerating the considerable length of his arms and fingers, although they were of normal proportions, but the skill with which he used them was certainly not. It is now known that Paganini suffered from a condition known as Marfan's Syndrome, a condition not identified until some seventy years after his death.

As a result, Paganini enjoyed exceptional dexterity in his fingers, and abnormal suppleness in his wrists and shoulders, which were coupled with his massive natural talent and drive to create musicianship unseen before or since. Having developed techniques for composing and playing on four, three, two or even just one string, Paganini would dazzle his audiences with his ability, and play up to the sinister image he cultivated with his wild hair and ethereal movements.

�One concert-goer insisted he had seen the devil standing at Paganini's side, aiding his playing, and the notion that Paganini was the offspring of, or at least on more than nodding terms with the devil began to spread. It is from this legend that the image of Satan playing a violin has grown into folklore.

Q.� What did all this do for Paganini's reputation

A.� There is no doubt that Paganini was a vain and egotistical man, keen to enjoy his formidable reputation, which he increased by composing works so technically complex that only he was able to perform them correctly. When his health permitted travel outside Italy, he toured Vienna and was even more of a sensation. It was then that the rock star aspect of Paganini's life took over.

Everywhere he went he was feared and feted in equal measure. Paganini found clothing and food dishes named after him. At one stage he had to produce letters from his mother as proof that he did indeed have human parents. His image was used on walking canes and snuffboxes, and when he walked through the streets of London, people prodded him with sticks to check if he was really human.

Q.� So the legend carried on growing

A.� It did, fuelled by Paganini's embrace for his own material ends. The myth that he was imprisoned for eight years with only his violin for company, and the famous soul-selling, grew from the story of another musician, Duranowski, who was sentenced to 20 years as a galley slave for murdering a priest, but freed after just two years. The stories crossed and grew, and Paganini did nothing to dissuade them, happy to bask in the mystique that ensured countless women adored him everywhere he went. At one concert, more than 300 people in the audience were put in hospital with a condition described as 'over-enchantment', and tears of wonder and joy were the norm at Paganini concerts as he inflamed the audience with his wild eyes, his flowing hair, and his famous hands performing their 'magic' on his violin.


Q.� How did it all end

A.� Even in death, Paganini continued to cause controversy. Always keen to increase his bank balance, he invested in a risky venture, a new concert hall that permitted gambling, two notions guaranteed to appeal to his instincts. Unhappily, the venture failed, and Paganini lost a fortune. The fevers to which he had succumbed all his life got worse, and on his deathbed, the Bishop of Nice arrived to give him last rites. The legend advises that the Bishop was dismissed because Paganini said he was immortal, and could not die, the reality is that Paganini may not have realised ho near to death he was, and expected to recover. The loss of his voice made a discussion impossible, and before the bishop could be recalled, Paganini died.

Because he had not received last rites, Paganini was denied a Christian burial, which added more fuel to the legend of his unholy alliances and his body did not receive proper burial for five years, until his son intervened with the Pope to ask for mercy. Paganini died as he had lived, a mixture of talent, greed, vice, legend, and mystery, truly an embryonic rock star of his time.

Q.� What has the world remembered of Paganini

A.� Firstly his superb technical skill, which altered the face of violin playing forever. The notion of left hand pizzicato (plucking strings), the use of new bowing actions and harmonics, have all been adapted in various ways, and are still in use in modern teaching methods. Niccolo Paganini stands as a musical legend whose drive to succeed in his chosen craft overcame health problems, an obsessive and indulgent personality, and ensured that his name will always be remembered with equal measures of respect and curiosity.

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Andy Hughes

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