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Paganini: Daredevil Composer & Violinist

Posted on 21 Jun 2016 by Cristina Maldonado

Paganini’s flame of life has now extinguished and with it that one powerful blast of nature’s breath, which is only given to us for a short time, only long enough for it to be withdrawn from us quickly once again; with it a wonderful spirit disappeared, and now it remains only as a spark in the sphere of art, but what a particularly great spark it was.

Franz Liszt in his obituary for Nicolò Paganini.


Paganini lived his life with extraordinary colour. Much has been written about his brilliance on the violin and he was admired by luminaries as Schubert and Chopin, who is said to have referred to Paganini as ‘perfect’. A virtuoso on both the violin and the guitar, he was an extraordinary talent, who from an early age was astounding teachers and performers across Europe.

The stories of his pact with the Devil are legendary. His technical virtuosity was so astounding that no-one believed it was possible for him to simply have been born with this gift – he must have entered into an arrangement with some dark and sinister force to become so extraordinary. Then there was his physical appearance – through illness and neglect he lost all of his teeth, which meant his mouth looked sunken and evil, and he was also painfully thin. And to put the final nail in the coffin, so to speak, of his satanic contract, when he was near death, he refused to see a priest, thus confirming (erroneously, of course) that he was damned. In fact, following his death in 1840, the Bishop of Nice forbade his interment in consecrated ground and he was not formally buried for 36 years, when he was laid to rest in a cemetery in Parma.

Paganini loved being a daredevil, a risk-taker, a showoff. While neither of these stories has anything to do with the Moses Fantasy as such, they do explain the kind of feeling, the method, the idea behind its composition. The first legend has it that while Paganini was performing, first, his E string broke, then the A, then the D, which left him with just the G. Refusing to stop, or to re-string, he played the remainder of the program on just the G string. The variation on this story has it that Paganini would intentionally file down his E string so it would snap midperformance, thus enabling him to do his trick of playing on just the one string.

Even though in all likelihood both stories are complete fantasy, the introduction and set of variations based on an aria from Rossini’s opera Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt), is, in fact, intended for performance on just the one string. Despite its mind-blowing difficulty, there is still plenty of serenely beautiful melodic artistry, as was the style of the bel canto opera whence it came.

Paganini's Solo Violin Part music score (extract).


MONTEVERDI (arr. strings) Lamento della ninfa
BERIO Sequenzas for Violin and Double Bass
LEO Cello Concerto No.3 in D minor
PAGANINI Introduction and Variations on ‘Dal tuo stellato soglio’ from Rossini’s Moses in Egypt
ROSSINI (arr. Eliodoro Sollima) ‘Une larme’ Theme and Variations for Cello and Strings
SCELSI C’est bien la nuit from Nuits