Biography of Niccolò Paganini, Italian Violin Virtuoso

The Italian composer who pioneered modern violin technique

Pencil drawing of Paganini with a violin
"The Violinist Niccolò Paganini" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, circa 1819 (Wikimedia Commons / Louvre Museum).

Niccolò Paganini (October 27, 1782–May 27, 1840) was an Italian musical virtuoso and composer. His work forms part of the basis of modern violin technique, and his compositions inspired numerous significant composers.

Fast Facts: Niccolò Paganini

  • Occupation: Composer and violinist
  • Known For: Violin virtuoso and composer who performed widely throughout Europe and developed modern violin techniques
  • Born: October 27, 1782 in Genoa, Republic of Genoa
  • Died: May 27, 1840 in Nice, France
  • Partner: Antonia Bianchi (unmarried; relationship lasted from 1813–1828)
  • Child: Achille Ciro Alessandro

Early Life

Born in Genoa, capital of the Italian city-state the Republic of Genoa, Niccolò was the third of six children born to Antonio and Teresa Paganini. Antonio was a trader, but didn’t make enough money to support his family; to supplement his income, he played the mandolin. Niccolò followed in his father’s footsteps, beginning mandolin lessons at the age of five and switching to the violin around the age of seven. He gained recognition quickly for his talents and soon outstripped the teaching abilities of local instructors.

Niccolò and his father traveled to Parma in search of an appropriate instructor. For a time, Niccolò was taught by Ferdinardo Paer and Gasparo Ghiretti. Although Niccolo’s time with the two teachers was brief, they proved to be a significant influence on his later musical style.

When Niccolò was fourteen, the French invaded northern Italy. The Paganinis moved to their country property in Romairone, where Niccolò learned to play guitar.

Traveling Musical Career

In 1801, Niccolò Paganini was appointed the first violin of the Republic of Lucca (an Italian city-state). This accomplishment was a remarkable success for his young age. While serving as first violin, he continued to work as a freelance musician. He also began developing a reputation for hard living in his personal life.

Upon the annexation of Lucca by Napoleon, Paganini became the court violinist for the new royal court, which was led by Napoleon’s sister Elisa Baciocchi. During this era, he composed 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 1, his most recognizable and enduring composition.

In 1809, Paganini left court to pursue a more nomadic traveling musical career. Initially, he found success in Genoa and Parma—his home regions—but not elsewhere.

Paganini's career blossomed when, in 1813, he performed at La Scala in Milan, an opportunity that afforded him wide recognition in the musical community of the era. That same year, Paganini met Antonia Bianchi, a singer, with whom he would have a fifteen-year relationship and a son, Achille (born in 1825).

In 1827, Pope Leo XII, the Italian-born pope at the time, honored Paganini with the Order of the Golden Spur, a recognition for those whose work is considered to have brought glory to the Catholic Church. Following this honor, Paganini split up with Antonia and launched a major European tour. The tour, which lasted three years, took him to every major European city, starting in Vienna in 1828 and ending in Strasbourg in 1831. Throughout the tour, Paganini performed both existing works and his own compositions.

Later Career

Although his musical career was more successful than ever, Paganini's health was not as strong as his career prospects. He likely suffered from a genetic connective tissue disorder, and when he was in Paris in 1834, he fell ill and received treatment for tuberculosis. He recovered from the illness, but his health would never be the same, and from then on, he would occasionally have to cancel concerts for health reasons. Earlier in his life, Paganini contracted syphilis, and the disease—plus the 19th century methods of treating it—continued to weaken his health.

By the fall of 1834, Paganini left the touring circuit and returned to Genoa. He spent most of his time working on the publication of his violin methods and his original compositions, although a rumor persisted that he wished to keep all his knowledge secret. For a time, he also worked with students. The following year, he returned to the court in Parma, where he was directed to reorganize the court orchestra of Napoleon’s second wife, Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. His personality led him to clash with the other musicians, however, and his vision for the orchestra never came to life.

Final Years

As his musical career declined, Paganini turned to other pursuits. In 1836, he tried opening a casino in Paris, but it failed miserably and cost him nearly all he had. By 1838, his health was failing further, and he traveled to Nice. On May 27, 1840, he died from an internal hemorrhage, dying so quickly that there was not even time to summon a priest to perform last rites.

Because he did not have last rites, and because of a strange rumor that claimed Paganini consorted with the devil, the Catholic Church refused to permit him a burial in the Church. It would be another four years before the Pope heard an appeal and allowed Paganini's body to be taken back to Genoa, although he was still not properly buried until 1876.

Niccolò Paganini’s influence on music was perhaps not as enormous as other composers, but his violin techniques and a handful of his compositions represented a new frontier in technical innovation – much of which can still be seen in music today.

Sources

  • “Niccolo Paganini.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Niccolo-Paganini
  • Pulver, Jeffrey. Paganini: The Romantic Virtuoso. Herbert Joseph, 1936.
  • Sugden, John. Paganini. Omnibus Press, 1980.