NIccolo Paganini Born, 1782

When Paganini took the stage, the audience grew hushed. The violinist was tall and dark, with curly hair and a sardonic smile. His face was thin and his eyes burned like coals. His performance was amazing; some said he had sold his soul to the devil.

Paganini’s talent was more likely the result of long hours of practice. His father, a Genoan dockworker and amateur mandolin player, had taught him to play the violin at the age of 7, and was reportedly a strict taskmaster. By the time he was 13, he was considered a virtuoso. By the time he was 19, he was an accomplished composer.

HIs appearance was likely the result of genetic abnormalities. It has been speculated that Paganini had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder resulting in particularly long limbs and fingers. (Abraham Lincoln is also suspected of having had the disorder.) He may have also been a victim of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, in which the collagen in connective tissues is abnormally elastic. Ehlers-Danlos is sometimes called “Rubber Man Syndrome.” Either of these conditions could have contributed to the amazing dexterity that Paganini displayed on the violin.

His appearance also was likely the result of poor health. The man had dental problems, and had all of his lower teeth pulled, resulting in a hollow and cadaverous facial appearance. He was pale, perhaps naturally, but more likely the result of the tuberculosis that plagued him in later years, or lead and arsenic treatments taken for syphilis.

Paganini’s father may have held him to a strict regimen, but his own was even more arduous. Once he was on his own, he was known to practice for long hours, sometimes up to 15 hours a day. Having mastered the art of playing, he then turned to composing. The 24 Caprices he composed at the age of 23 is one of the most difficult violin works ever written.

Paganini’s performances were rich in amazing technical feats. Once, when playing before an audience, he had the unfortunate experience of having a string break. The audience expected disaster, but Paganini played on, using the remaining strings. Later, he incorporated the feat into his standard performance, cutting three strings in front of the audience, and playing a piece on a single string. He was also known for his “impossible” fingerings — possible only because of his unique physical condition. He was capable of playing four octaves in a single hand span. Other feats included ricochet bowing (bouncing the bow across the strings), pizzicato (plucking the strings instead of bowing them) and scordata, a technique where the strings are mistuned so that he could play in various keys without altering his hand position. He also shunned the use of sheet music in his performances, and was the first well-known performer to play extensive pieces from memory.

His performances had a profound effect on his audiences, who sometimes burst into tears at a moving composition, or were nearly overcome by an energetic one. One man reported that he had witnessed the devil standing beside Paganini, encouraging his performance. Other rumors circulated that the devil could always be found in Paganini’s audiences, enjoying his music.

Paganini must have enjoyed his reputation, for he made it a practice to always dress in black, and frequently arrived at the performance hall in a black coach drawn by four black horses. He was less receptive to other rumors that circulated about him, many on themes of murder and womanizing. One tale said that he had killed a woman and imprisoned her soul in his violin.

Paganini died in Nice, Italy in 1840 of cancer of the larynx. He spent his last days feverishly composing, when he had been told by his doctors to rest. Not believing that he was truly dying, he refused last rites, and consequently was not allowed burial in hallowed ground, and his body was kept in a basement by his family. Finally, after five years of petition to the Pope, his family was allowed to bury him.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events;;;;;;;;;;;

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