Niccolo Paganini, who is considered the greatest violin virtuoso of all time, was probably one of the most erratic figures of all time. Through his numerous performances all over Europe, he enthralled and inspired every audience, including musicians of his era.
Franz Schubert was mystified by him, Rossini was appalled by him, and Meyerbeer followed him from one concert to another not being able to get enough of his playing. Berlioz has described Paganini as “one of those artists of whom it must be said: ‘They are because they are and not because others were before them’.” In Paris, Liszt came under Paganini’s spell and was so stimulated by his fabulous technical virtuosity, determined to accomplish similar miracles with the piano, and pushed his technique to the highest limits.
Paganini was considered a genius, a god, a devil worshiper, anything but that of reality. There was a rumor, for instance, that when Niccolo was only six, his mother made a pact with the Devil and is said to have traded his soul for a career as the greatest violinist in the world.
Paganini was a legend. In fact, he was so amazing no audience could succumb to any type of disturbance during the trance he created through his musical renditions. After borrowing a Guarnerius violin for a single concert, the lender begged him to keep it for fear of coming under Paganini’s supernatural powers. He also won a Stradivarius violin in a similar manner by playing a technical piece by sight which was insisted that nobody could perform even after preparation.
The rumor was spread that he was the son of the Devil. It was difficult to think much otherwise as Paganini dressed in black, played weaving and flailing, with skinny fingers cavorting over the strings, and contorted shoulders giving him the appearance of a giant flapping bat. He was once forced to publish letters from his mother to prove he had human parents.
Whenever and wherever he played, he aroused tenor and awe in his audiences. There was the rumor that a satanic figure, a double of Paganini, always appeared in the audience in sombre black with the same long black locks, burning eyes, and sardonic smile. Or else the figure appeared on the stage at Paganini’s side dressed in a red cloak and pantaloons, with horns, hooves, and a tail to guide Paganini’s bow arm through a performance. It was believed that this figure raised a thunderstorm, during a concert and conducted lightening to the free end of the bow, and at another performance he actually took possession of Paganini’s body. In spite of his appearance and the suspicions, however, he was worshiped wherever he went.
There was another rumor that he was the greatest womanizer of all time and that he killed a woman, imprisoned her soul in his violin, and used parts of her intestines as an eternal source of gut for his strings. The unearthly screams of women were sometimes heard coming from his violin as he played on stage.
The most famous is of the concert in Leghorn. When a string of his violin snapped in an intricate passage, the audience began expressing derision. But when Paganini continued to play the piece on three strings instead of four, the derision turned to wonder and awe. From then on Paganini would not hesitate to use this devise on purpose to further entrance his audience. Often he would use worn strings so that he could complete his performance on three or even two strings when they snapped. Later he got the idea to write entire pieces for a single string, such as the Fantasia on the G String.
In 1831, he arrived to Paris. In Paris, there was a study made of him because his unusual appearance created an abnormal “presence” about him. Up until then there was no challenge as to the idea that he was possessed by the devil or was some sort of god himself. Through this study was found that his physical characteristics were linked to his mental abilities.
For five years the Church, disturbed as to his orthodoxy, refused his body interment in consecrated ground, and so it was laid to rest in a village graveyard on his own estate. The people in nearby towns use to say that every night they heard the sounds of a ghostly violin emanating from that coffin. The legend of Paganini’s life lasted until the very end.