Niccolò Paganini: first international superstar violinist
Most international pop stars are singers. That has held true for centuries. Nowadays, it seems, if they're not singers, they play guitar, but it's the rare guitarist who can upstage a singer. That's not new, either. No instrumentalist could compete with singers for sheer star power until early in the nineteenth century. The earliest of them dazzled audiences on the piano. Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) took the world by storm at age 22 by playing things on violin that no one else could match. He also had a brilliant showmanship that equaled his technique.
Paganini was the first virtuoso on any instrument besides piano who performed from memory. That feat enabled him to interact with his audience by moving around the stage. He was tall and thin, with incredibly flexible joints that gave him a reach along the fingerboard that no one else could match. He also invented new tunings and new techniques (such as simultaneously bowing and playing pizzicato with his left hand) that no one had ever thought of before. Later violinists have learned all of those techniques, but no one since has been able to match Paganini's wide stretch.
His stage presence seemed wild. His pale skin and long hair and nose helped give him a creepy look, and he often formed his thin lips into a sarcastic smile. And then there were all those tricks that no other violinist could yet perform. People began to wonder if Paganini had some help from the devil. He did nothing to discourage speculation like that. He realized that it was good for audience building. People who would never buy a ticket to hear a violinist play music would buy one if they had a chance to see the devil himself!
In the early part of the nineteenth century, popular virtuosos were as likely to appear at salons in private homes as in the concert hall. On one occasion, a storyteller also entertained at the same salon, enthralling the audience with a grisly tale of a young man who killed his father and became a highwayman. He fell in love with a young girl who spurned him. He took her to a cliff, grabbed her, and jumped off so that she would die in his arms. Then the story teller asked Paganini if he could improvise music to match the story.
Paganini agreed and asked for all the lights to be extinguished. His music matched the dark horror of the story so perfectly that several ladies fainted. When the lights were put back on, the room looked like a battlefield. So long as his reputation for being the devil came from stories like that, Paganini took full advantage. When the stories turned slanderous, though, he took exception.
Once, he entered a hotel restaurant. Before anyone recognized him, he heard a man at another table telling such a story. The man claimed that Paganini had murdered a rival violinist, one of the man's own friends. He had been sentenced to solitary confinement for eight years. With nothing to do in all that time except practice, no wonder he could play so well. Of course, all of the man's companions expressed shock at the enormity of the crime.
At that point, Paganini demanded to know any verifiable details. Whom had he killed? When? Where? Of course, by that time everyone recognized him. The man who told the story, conveniently forgetting his claim that the victim was a friend of his, said he had heard the story somewhere and that it had seemed credible.
We know about that incident, because Paganini himself complained about it in a letter to a well-known music critic. He further griped that in Vienna he heard a member of the audience insist that he had seen the devil himself guiding Paganini's arm. He also said that he looked so much like the devil that there could be no question where he came from. Of course, he allowed, it was possible to tell them apart. The devil, after all, had horns, red clothes, and a tail.
When we look back at Paganini with knowledge of modern medicine, we can see a possible reason for his appearance. Of course, most of his technique resulted from a keen imagination for novelty and very disciplined work in developing it. His flexible joints and general appearance hint that he may have had some kind of congenital condition--Marfan syndrome perhaps, or Ehlers-Danios syndrome.
Whether he suffered from either condition, he had several chronic health problems, including syphilis. His rigorous concert schedule, his extravagant lifestyle, and the mercury and opium he took to treat his syphilis wrecked his health. He caught tuberculosis in 1834, and although he recovered quickly enough, he had to cancel so many appearances for a variety of illnesses that he gave up public performance later that year.
Like many virtuosos of his time and later, he composed much of the music he performed. Although he was not a great composer, his pieces have remained crowd pleasers ever since. Other composers have used some of them as the basis for works of their own. The last of his 24 Caprices, a set of variations, has been used as the basis of variations for piano by Schumann, Brahms, and Liszt, as well a rhapsody for orchestra by Rachmaninoff.