“Many creatures are of a rather demonic nature" - the “devil’s violinist” Niccolò Paganini

27 October 1782, the “devil’s violinist” Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa.
“Many creatures are of a rather demonic nature… Among artists one finds this to be more true among musicians, less among painters. In the case of Paganini, it is apparent to a high degree” (Goethe)

 Eugene Delacroix’s portrait of Paganini from 1832

Faust and his thirst for knowledge is an early outlier among the “Teufelsbündler”, the people who struck a deal with the devil. The motif dates back to the late Middle Ages and Old Nick is usually approached for material gain, worldly power or to win a lover’s heart. Usually, they are moral tales, ending in tears and eternal damnation, sometimes, though, the devil is outwitted by a shrewd peasant. But in the wake of Milton’s reframing of Satan and the rediscovery of Marlowe, the faustian bargain began to take another shape and a different connotation – rather more sophisticated since the Romantic Movement’s fascination for the Gothic, shadowy and nocturnal, especially in the arts. And while a lot of Romantic artists were rumoured to be possessed by the devil, the image of the virtuoso selling his soul to the devil to gain perfection was especially connected with musicians and Paganini was the best known of them.

Franz Krüger (1797 – 1857): Henriette Sontag and Niccolò Paganini.
Detail of “Parade on Opernplatz” (1822)

It might have been that Paganini suffered from the Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that results in unusually long limbs and fingers that allowed him to be able to play the violin like he did, three octaves across four strings in a hand span and exceptionally hard to reproduce – and young Paganini soaked up a lot of contemporary influences in violin play and arranged them into a dazzling total work of art, from his virtuosic play to his showmanship – and he positively toyed with the image of the pact with the devil. His own compositions are often forgotten over his legendary performances, but Paganini had written his first pieces when he was seven and composed 24 caprices by the age of 23. It furthered his image, of course, that he was the only one who could actually play them for years – and his life and act was so much more interesting than his techniques that would set standards for violinistic techniques in compositions to this day.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: “Niccolò Paganini” (1819)

Paganini made his first public appearance at the age of 12, had his first breakdown at the age of 16, became an alcoholic and had the airs and graces of a contemporary Rock star. His play could move his audience to tears, he astonished them by playing pizzicati with the left and the right hand, double stops and fingerings and bowings only he could carry out on the brink of the humanely possible. Some claimed to have seen the devil with him on stage, even Goethe, who saw him perform in Weimar, claimed to have had a hallucination, with a column of flames and smoke cloaking the virtuoso and the obviously quite overwrought prince of poets claimed to have heard voices and felt a comet rush past from far away. Paganini’s appearance and behaviour underlined the demonic image, he was tall and unkempt and messy, wore blue sun glasses as standard stage prop and roamed the graveyards at night and lost his teeth in his late 40s, one of the symptoms of the syphilis the womanizer had caught quite soon and died at the age of 58, exhausted and empty, having finally lost his ability to play the violin a few years earlier. Pope Gregory XVI forbade that the last rites were given to Paganini because of the rumours of his faustian pact and the virtuoso thus made his last bow and became a legend.

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