Did he sell his soul?
Did he have extra fingers?
No; he was that good.
They swooned when they saw
His flying fingers and heard
Songs played from the soul.
Niccolò Paganini (27 October 1782-27 May 1840) was the premier violinist of his time and an outstanding composer. His 24 Caprices for Solo Violin have been the inspiration and bedevilment of generations of violinists. And that was his Opus 1! He composed solos, duos, trios, and quartets, including works for the violin, viola, and guitar. He is also well known for his works on violin technique.
Although he was employed at various times in his career by nobility, most of the time Paganini was a freelance virtuoso. He performed his own works in concerts, and his fame spread far beyond his native Italy. His themes have been used by numerous composers as the basis for sets of variations. His work has also been incorporated into performances by guitarists far outside the classical realm, namely rock guitarists Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai.
Ever the showman, it is said that Paganini intentionally used worn strings in performance so that they would break, at which point he would continue playing on the remaining strings as if nothing had happened. Paganini even wrote a violin piece to be played on only one string. (Jazz fans: check out the video of bass player Victor Wooten playing with a broken string–like a boss. String breaks at about 2:45.)
Paganini’s appearance only added to the mesmerizing effect of his playing. Tall, gaunt, dressed in black, many suspected that the only way one could play so rapidly and so well was through a pact with the devil. But a human source of his great flexibility and appearance is more likely. It is believed that Paganini had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or Marfan syndrome, a symptom of which is abnormal flexibility of the joints. But a period during which he is said to have played up to 15 hours a day may also have had something to do with it.
Here is Jascha Heifetz playing Caprice No 24.
You can hear all 24 caprices here.
Here is Paganini’s La Campanella (Violin Concerto No 2 in B Minor, Op. 7, third movement).
Want to hear a 1615 viola? Here is Paganini’s Sonata per Gran Viol played on the Amati viola “La Stauffer.”
Nicolo Paganini: His Life and Work, Stephen Samuel Stratton. NY: Scribner’s, 1907. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39571/39571-h/39571-h.htm
Image attribution: Niccolò Paganini by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ANiccoloPaganini.jpeg