On this day in 1782, the great violinist Niccolò Paganini was born. His father played the mandolin semi-professionally to subsidize his poor living in trade. As a result of this, Paganini learned to play the mandolin at the age of five. At seven, he switched to violin and was quickly recognized as a great talent. By the age of 18, he was an established professional musician in court and as a freelancer. Wikipedia, usually reticent to editorialize, noted, “His fame as a violinist was matched only by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer.”
Since we don’t have recordings of Paganini, people tend to focus on him as a composer. I don’t see it. He does have a nice ear for melody. But when he isn’t over-exuberant, he is maudlin. What’s more, there isn’t much in the way of counterpoint in his work. He apparently wrote on guitar. I think if it hadn’t been for his great ability on the violin and viola, no one would have noticed his compositions. But many (greater) composers after him — most notably Liszt and Brahms — based works on his melodies.
Paganini is best remembered for how he affected the way the violin is played. It isn’t so much true that he was an innovator. Most of his techniques such as left-hand pizzicato and harmonics had been around for a long time. But he used them so much in his compositions and performances that they became normalized. He did, it seems, develop new methods of fingering, although I’m not sure how widely these have been used; Paganini had extremely long fingers — to the point where it is speculated that he might have suffered from Marfan syndrome.
Here is his most famous piece, Caprice No 24 in A minor. I will allow that it is a charming piece of music. And here is a wonderful version of it with the all the Illényi kids playing the hell out of it. And that is fitting for Paganini:
Happy birthday Niccolò Paganini!