1) He was quite sickly as a child
Throughout his life Paganini was plagued by health problems, starting in his childhood.
At one point in his childhood, he suffered from an attack of the measles so bad, his parents thought he was dead and nearly buried him alive! Fortunately, he moved at the last moment, saving himself from an early grave.
2) His father was incredibly strict with him
His mother prayed to god for a virtuoso child, and his father helped that dream come true.
His father would work him from sunrise to sunset, and would beat and starve young Nicolo if he did not meet his father’s expectations.
While it had tremendous impact on his ability (although there certainly would have been kinder methods), it did leave it’s mark on Paganini.
Paganini chose not to teach his son to become a violinist, possibly because of the methods that his father employed on him.
3) He studied with several masters
Nicolo soon outgrew his father’s instruction, and after being visited by Francesco Gnecco, it was suggested to his father that he find another teacher for the boy.
Young Pagnini studied with Giovanni Servetto, quickly followed the leading violinist in Genova, Giacomo Costa.
Costa helped Paganini make tremendous progress, requiring the boy to learn and perform a new concert, every week!
4) He was a Contemporary of Several other Great Composers
Berlioz, Liszt, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Wagner were all around at the time of Paganini. It’s a shame they didn’t do a concert together!
Paganini attended a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and was so impressed he asked Berlioz to write a solo for him! He was also a great fan of Beethoven’s work.
When Liszt was suffering from a broken heart, creatively and emotionally, Paganini helped pull him out of the depression and get back to writing music.
Another contemporary happened to be Napoleon Bonaparte, who inconveniently set to conquering Europe, interrupting Paganini’s touring plans.
5) He Was the First Violinist to Memorise Pieces for Performances
Before Paganini, it was the norm for soloists to sit at the front of the stage and perform from sheet music.
However, Paganini would memorise everything he played. This was unusual enough at the time for newspapers to comment on it.
Eventually it became common practice.
6) He accidentally invented the recital
The year was 1832, and Paganini was giving a concert in Boulogne, France.
He was going to perform with an amateur philharmonic society in Boulogne. The society wanted so many free tickets for their friends and families, that Paganini thought there would not be enough space for paying members of the public.
So, Paganini sought to enlist professional players. However, the professional musicians in the area required the support of the amateur philharmonic society, and turned Paganini down.
So…. he performed solo. Thus inventing the recital.
Liszt was the first person to use the term “recital”, when advertising a performance in 1840. However, Paganini had beaten him to performing a recital.
7) He wasn’t buried for 5 years after he died
Nicolo Paganini died on May 27th, 1840. The church doubted his faith, meaning that he could not be buried on consecrated grounds.
His friends appealed to Rome and an enquiry was launched into his faith. However, in the meantime, the former Paganini’s landlord wanted to rent out the house Paganini had lived in… so the landlord put Paganini in the cellar!
Eventually, Paganini’s body found it’s way to his heir’s country house, where he ‘waited’ four years to be buried.
Paganini was finally buried in May, 1845.
50 years later, the local government at Parma decided to dig up Paganini and reinter his body at a fancy tomb.
8) A lot of his music was lost
Starting with the violin sonata he composed when he was 8 years old, a lot of Paganini’s work has been lost, and until it is discovered, will never be heard.
Some manuscripts are held by private collectors / owners and have never been recorded. Many more are just lost to time.
Amongst the missing works are sonatas and quartets, the only records of the pieces being mentions from either Paganini himself, records from the time, or a list drawn up by Constabile, of pieces said to be held by Paganini’s son.
9) He also played guitar
After Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, Paganini retired, living at a chateau owned by a Tuscan lady. This lady also happened to play guitar, and while living at the chataeu, Paganini dived into studying the instrument and learning it inside out.
He also composed a number of pieces for guitar.
So there are some of my favourite facts about Nicolo Paganini, mainly drawn from the book “Nicolo Paganini: His Life and Work” by Stephen S. Stratton. The book was a great read, and it was very enjoyable to find out more about the legendary Paganini.
What Was His Secret?
Paganini’s legendary playing fostered a legendary reputation and a rumour mill of how he became so good. Rumours ranged from selling his soul to the devil, to a rumour that he was imprisoned with his violin, so he had nothing to do but practice for 6 hours a day.
He is said to have been able to write his secrets on two pieces of paper.
If I were to guess, I would say his secrets were:
- Putting in a lot of hours practising, every day.
- Making sure that practice was highly focussed.
- Pushing himself to try new things / compose new music.