Skip to page content

Niccolò Paganini


About this Artist

Born: 1782, Genoa, Italy

Died: 1840, Nice, France

Paganini is perhaps the best representative of a major characteristic of 19th-century romantic music: the rise of the astounding virtuoso performer. Today, musical audiences of more than a century later still revel in hearing performances by outstanding executants on their instruments. Franz Liszt, with Paganini as a model, was a rival showman on the piano, and there were any number of later conductors who helped establish the “cult of personality” associated with the conductor as maestro. Paganini’s virtuosity was legendary, and he composed many works to play, himself—many of which were published only after his death, owing to the belief that only he could play them. Admittedly, most of them are no match in profundity for the great composers of the time, relying as they do, upon entertaining difficulty and dazzling passagework for their appeal. 

Nevertheless, Paganini did have a real gift for melodic invention; Rossini, a close friend, once observed that had Paganini composed operas he would have “knocked out all of us.” 

Born in Genoa, Paganini spent most of his life on the road—earlier, in Italy, and later, in the rest of Europe—playing solo concerts of his own music and making a prodigious amount of money in the process. He was known for his ability to spread his fingers wide, facilitating unusual effects on the violin, which he incorporated into his compositions. Today, many of them are standard repertory work for advanced students. His favorite violin, a Guarneri del Gesù, which he called “The Cannon” for its powerful sound, was altered by fitting a larger fingerboard and a somewhat flatter bridge to ease the production of triple stops and double harmonics. It still exists today in the city of Genoa and is frequently taken out of display and played.