Niccolo Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy, the third of the six children of Antonio and Teresa Paganini. His father, a poor dockworker, gave him his first lessons on the mandolin and violin at the age of five. He then studied with Giovanni Servetto, a violinist in the local theater orchestra, where his musical talents were quickly recognized, earning him numerous scholarships for violin lessons.
In 1801, Paganini, age 18 at the time, was appointed first violinist of the Republic of Lucca, but a substantial portion of his income came from freelancing. His fame as a violinist was matched only by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer. His first real break came from an 1813 concert at La Scala in Milan. The concert was a great success. As a result, Paganini began to attract the attention of other prominent, albeit more conservative, musicians across Europe.
As a soloist, Paganini captivated his auditors by his pyrotechnics. Paganini’s stupendous technique, power, and control, as well as his romantic passion and intense energy, made him the marvel of his time. He also was not above employing certain tricks of virtuosity, such as tuning up the A string of his violin by a semitone or playing the “Witches” Dance” on one string after severing the other 3 on stage, in sight of his audience, with a pair of scissors. He was also a highly effective composer for the violin, and gave regular performances of his works at his concerts with great success. Outstanding among his compositions are the 24 “Caprices” for Solo Violin, the “Moto perpetuo” for Violin and Orchestra, and several of the violin concertos. The Moto Perpetuo in C (there is another, posthumous, in A) is four minutes of sheer physical delight for the worthy performer, five or six minutes of absolute terror for the underdeveloped. The machine-gun sixteenth notes never once stop through 187 measures of music. At a tempo that does service to Paganini’s intentions, the piece is among the most fiendish the composer penned. Those who label Paganini as a thoughtless “note spinner” would do well to take a look at the apparently ordinary, but in fact ingeniously devised, way that he brings about the reprise of the opening passage in the Moto Perpetuo. It helps to remember that it was not for several generations after his death that European violinists were willing to make a go at playing much of his music.
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