Niccolò Paganini. A Re-evaluation of his Legend
No artist’s name has been more vilified than that of Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840). Whilst he is universally recognized as the greatest violin virtuoso of his time, and an inspiration to major composers, writers and painters from the Romantic age to the present,1 in his day and beyond he was accused of being a murderer, a miser, a misanthrope, and ‘a monster of sorts’.2 Even his biographers do not refrain from casting aspersions: Alan Kendall calls him ‘mean and grasping’, ‘paranoid’, ‘xenophobic’ and ‘withdrawn’. He claims he ‘used and abused women’ and ‘constantly wrecked relationships’.3 John Sugden is slightly kinder. Whilst referring to the legendary Paganini as ‘unsociable’, ‘taciturn’ and ‘unpredictable’, with ‘slip-shod’ manners, ‘disreputable’ clothes, and a personality which was distinctly ‘uncouth’, he nevertheless acknowledges that if the critics had informed themselves of Paganini’s state of health, they would surely have been less critical of the man ‘whose courage exceeded anything a reasonably healthy person could ever conceive’.4
The aim of this article is to argue that there is little, if any, justification for the excessive calumny to which Paganini was subjected in his lifetime and beyond. It is my purpose here to overturn the common perceptions of Paganini as a gambler, compulsive womanizer, murderer, wrecker of relationships, miser, vulgarian and heathen.
Geraldine de Courcy’s Paganini, the Genoese, is, without doubt, the most detailed and reliable biography of Paganini.5 Interestingly, it is also the one most inclined to exposing the fabrications and falsehoods at the foundations of the Paganini legend, and for that very reason I cite from it frequently in the pages which follow. One other critic who has sought to defend Paganini’s reputation is Hugh McGinnis Ferguson. Convinced that Paganini was ‘a man of strengths, not of weaknesses’, he set about disproving the hitherto unchallenged view that the Casino Paganini, in which Paganini had a number of shares, was originally conceived as a gambling house. 6 This view, and the concomitant representation of Paganini as a compulsive gambler, has been advanced by a number of major biographers and critics including François-Joseph Fétis, Gian Carlo Conestabile, René de Saussine, Jeffrey Pulver, Alan Kendall, John Sugden, Alan Walker and Sacheverell Sitwell.7 Ferguson painstakingly exposes the lie and demonstrates that the Casino, which opened briefly in Paris in 1837, had been intended as a venue where Paganini would regularly perform; and it failed, not because the government refused it a gambling licence, but because Paganini became too ill to play.
The critics tell us that Paganini’s father, Antonio, a dock’s worker from Genoa, was a gambler, even a successful one, for how else (de Courcy asks) could he have come to possess a Hieronymus Amati violin of 1672 on which his son taught himself to play? 8 It was therefore assumed that Paganini had inherited a weakness for the gaming table. The truth is that Paganini did indulge in a period of gambling when he first escaped parental control in Lucca at the age of nineteen. However, he quickly abandoned the vice when he was in danger of losing his pawned Stradivarius: ‘From that day I abjured gambling […] convinced that a gamester is an object of contempt to all well-regulated minds.’ 9 George Harrys, Paganini’s secretary and assistant during a tour of Germany in the summer of 1830, reported that if Paganini came near a gaming table whilst on tour, ‘he scarcely looked at it, almost as though he wished to get away from the cards.’10 Paganini therefore had sufficient willpower to renounce gambling before it settled into a habit, demonstrating a determination and self-control unusual for a nineteen-year-old boy. Paganini did gamble, therefore, but only very briefly, and gambling never became an addiction.
It was also at the age of nineteen that Paganini was said to disappear for three years from public life. Many biographers, following the example of Fétis, claim that Paganini spent these years playing guitar in Tuscany with a lady of rank whose name research never managed to disclose. Lillian Day writes that this lady ‘fell in love with him and took him to her château in the mountains where, for three years, he devoted himself to love and agriculture. […] He forsook his violin completely, at the behest of the lady who wanted no reminder of the past’.11 Fabrications of this kind fuelled the myth of Paganini as a self-indulgent womanizer. The truth was that Paganini spent these years away from public life, perfecting his technique, in preparation for the launching of his huge career.
Just as there was no Tuscan lady of rank, neither was there a murdered mistress. Much to Paganini’s distress, the French painter, Louis Boulanger, perpetuated the fantastic tale of murder with a lithograph depicting Paganini in prison (Paganini en prison), and it went on display in Paris in 1831 precisely in the week that Paganini was making his début in the city.12 The foundations for the story of Paganini’s eight-year prison sentence for murder lay in an unfortunate liaison with a girl of twenty, Angelina Cavanna, whom Paganini had been accused by the courts of abducting in 1815 and for which crime he spent 3000 lire in damages. By 1815 Paganini was a wealthy celebrity and open to exploitation by females who were well aware of the potential material advantages of getting involved with him. De Courcy’s view is that Angelina’s father, an ‘impecunious tailor’, indoctrinated his daughter in a strategy to frame the violinist.13 Similarly, Pietro Berri refers to Miss Cavanna as ‘an astute and perverted tool of extortion’ rather than the ‘innocent, ingenuous soul’ 14 that she was presented as being in court. Paganini’s lawyer had argued that Angelina’s father exerted no control over his daughter’s movements, and that she had left home with Paganini of her own volition. It was the first, but not the last, time that the violinist succumbed to feminine wiles and plunged heedlessly into a snare which would gain him a reputation as an abuser of women. In 1834, the English factotum, John Watson, contrived in a similar fashion to frame Paganini with his daughter, Charlotte Watson. John Watson was someone whom Paganini had repeatedly bailed out of prison for debt.
With the singer, Antonia Bianchi, Paganini had initially hoped that ‘the years would glide by happy and contented’.15 They met in 1824 and, after concertizing together in Italy and Vienna, parted ways in 1827. Bianchi is described by de Courcy as being ‘an untamed, passionate creature, consumed by a jealousy that knew no peace’.16 In 1825 she bore Paganini a son, Achille. The following year Achille broke a leg. Paganini cancelled a series of concerts, and for two full weeks kept his child as still as possible so as to help his bones to knit. This mostly involved holding the restless baby on his lap, and at the end of the two weeks, Paganini, exhausted, fell ill himself. Throughout all of this, Bianchi, who was, in de Courcy’s view, ‘lazy and possessing none of the domestic virtues’, 17 apparently displayed a total lack of concern either for her son or for his father. In fact, Paganini’s letters to his life-long friend, a lawyer by the name of Luigi Germi, paint the mother of his child as a rather violent lady who ‘smashed “his” violin and boxed “his” ears in public’.18 Certainly, Bianchi’s ‘selling’ of Achille to Paganini for 3,000 florins - a settlement that allowed her to break with the violinist and return to Milan, alone - heightens the very poor impression one receives of her. Yet, in spite of her violence and in spite of her desertion, Paganini’s contemporary biographer, Julius Max Schottky, records his impression that Paganini actually cared a lot for Bianchi and that their rupture affected him deeply.19 Contrary, therefore, to the popular idea that the violinist ‘used and abused’ women, it would seem rather that Paganini was an easy target for abuse by women and frequently exploited by them.
When Paganini gained custody of Achille, the boy was only three years old. This is the amazing part of Paganini’s story which to date has been largely ignored: Paganini as a father. If Paganini were a constant wrecker of relationships, as Kendall claimed, it would have been highly unlikely for his relationship with his son to have stood the test of time. Instead, the love and support between Paganini and Achille were rock-solid from beginning to end. Paganini was an exemplary father. He took Achille everywhere with him as he travelled by coach across Europe. He dressed him, fed him, played with him, educated him, nursed him and put him to sleep at night. Yet, apart from de Courcy, none of Paganini’s biographers seem to have given the slightest thought to the plethora of problems which Paganini must have encountered as a travelling, single parent. De Courcy writes: ‘Paganini […] had to be father, mother, nursemaid, all in one. […] No matter how ill and exhausted he might be […] he had to assume the role of ‘playmate’.20 There are a few surviving narratives depicting Paganini with his son. Schottky recounts how when he first visited Paganini, he was met with the violinist sitting up in bed ‘trying to help his black-eyed, black-haired youngster put on his red shoes’. 21 The French sculptor, David d’Angers, who executed a bronze bust of Paganini in 1833, writes in his Carnets of the sessions during which the violinist sat for preliminary sketches. Achille, always present on these occasions, is described as climbing on top of Paganini, ‘pulling his nose and his hair’.22 One delightful entry depicts the child as a lively cub playing with his lion-like father:
I have been to see him today. He was sitting in his armchair like a man overwhelmed by great weariness. His little boy was playing around him, climbing on his back, rolling on the carpet, passing a pen ever so gently through his father’s great mane of hair. He seemed a lion cub playing with an old lion.23
There are descriptions by Paganini himself of his attempts to entertain his young son between concert performances. He writes to Germi: ‘The poor child [Achille] is bored! […]. I’ve been fencing with him the whole morning. I’ve walked up and down with him, made chocolate for him; and now I really don’t know what to do next!’ 24 How Paganini dealt with the pressures of performance and the need to maintain his international, superstar profile whilst having sole responsibility for his child, is beyond comprehension. In all his correspondence, not one word of frustration is uttered by him regarding his responsibilities as a single parent. On the contrary, he takes pleasure in voicing a total devotion to his son: ‘If I should lose him’, he told Schottky, ‘I should be lost myself, for I can’t bear to be parted from him’. 25 In a letter to Germi, dated 12 April, 1833, he proclaims ‘He [Achille] is my consolation. When I have a severe coughing spell, the dear little lad gets up, helps me and comforts me with unspeakable affection. May Heaven preserve him.’26 When in May, 1834, Paganini was forced to leave Achille with relatives of the Watsons in order to perform in London, he writes of the pain of his separation from him:
These few days away from you seem to me like ten years. Heaven knows how it grieved me to have to leave you behind! But knowing your delicate constitution, I renounced the pleasure of having you with me on this disastrous tour so that you could remain in London […] Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you, talk to you, kiss you. Sunday, I’ll have the pleasure of embracing you in person and of telling you many things that through an excess of feeling it would be impossible to express in writing. I hope that your conduct is exemplary and that you’re progressing with your studies. Looking forward to the happy moment of clasping you to my heart, with no end of love.27
Achille lived with his father all of his life and continued to be a devoted son, striving tirelessly after Paganini’s death to have his father buried in consecrated land.
It was not only toward his son that Paganini felt a deep-rooted commitment. Paganini’s father had left the family in Niccolò’s charge, not, as would have been expected, in the charge of his other, first born son, Carlo. It was a responsibility which Paganini executed with diligence and generosity. Throughout all of his life, he gave financial support to his family – his mother, his brother, his sisters and their children. He writes to his mother in October and November, 1816:
I want to give you a monthly allowance so that you can provide yourself with the things you need for the maintenance of yourself and the rest of the family. Tell me how many Genoese lire you need per day so that I can send them to you. I’m only anxious to see you and my sisters happy and contented. (October 1816). 28
I’m happy, but should be even more so, if you would treat yourself well at table. I want you to buy yourself the good Montferrato wine and provide yourself with good food and make all the family contented. Otherwise, I shall be unhappy. I don’t lack means to send you whatever money you may need. (November, 1816). 29
He also provided for his widowed sister-in-law and her children, as well as his mother’s brothers for whom he had little sympathy. There was no real obligation on his part to concern himself with anyone outside the immediate family, yet he did, particularly if children were involved. Far from ‘ “wrecking” relationships’, Paganini, it seems, did his best to sustain and support them.
In spite of his concern for the financial well-being of others, Paganini was repeatedly branded as a miser. Envied by the critics and public alike for his ‘easy’ wealth, he was accused of having an obsession with money for its own sake. This was particularly the case whilst in England where, upon arrival, his agent doubled the prices of admission to his performance at the King’s Theatre which led The Times to encourage the public to absent themselves from the concerts of this ‘foreigner’ who seemed convinced of the ‘gullibility of the English nation.’ 30 In the event, Paganini overrode his agent’s decision; apologized publicly, and played at the old prices.
In his conversations with Schottky, Paganini broached the topic of his alleged parsimony and claimed to be frugal and money-conscious rather than greedy. He justified his frugality as follows:
Who can hold it against me that I practise the strictest economy? It is only within the last few years that I have known material comfort, and since then, haven’t I had a very serious illness that has cost me a lot of money? Can’t this happen again and even incapacitate me for a long time so that I can’t give any concerts? And then, what am I to live on? Moreover, I must think of my son’s future. Besides, my family is poor and I must also look after them in the years to come.31
It would seem that Paganini’s good management and careful budgeting was misconstrued as mercenary behaviour. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that the violinist was of a generous rather than miserly nature. Whilst in Vienna, he allowed all violin students of the Vienna Conservatory to be given free admission to his concerts. Whenever he stopped in a city for any length of time, he usually gave a charity concert as a farewell gesture, and when, during the great cholera epidemic of 1832, everyone, including Rossini, had fled Paris, Paganini remained, and gave a concert at the Opéra for the benefit of the cholera sufferers. It was the second charity concert he had given in Paris. Yet, when there was flooding at St Étienne and Paganini excused himself from performing for the benefit of the flood victims on the grounds of his ‘shattered health’, Jules Janin, the editor of the Journal des Débats, publicly and viciously held him to task.32 Four years later, Janin tried to make amends with a written apology, but, by that stage, such unwarranted assaults had embittered Paganini’s soul and caused irreversible damage to his health.
1. Most notably, but not exclusively (in chronological order) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ugo Foscolo, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Stendhal, Leigh Hunt, David d’Angers, Heinrich Heine, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Pierre Dantan, Georges Patten, Cesare Pugni, Edwin Henry Landseer, Johann Peter Lyser, Louis Boulanger,Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, Théophile Gautier, Franz Liszt, Charles Baudelaire, Johannes Brahms, Franz Léhar,Sergei Rachmaninov, Alfredo Casella, Hugh Lofting, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Luigi Dallapiccola and Witold Lutoslawski. The most well-known of the works which Paganini inspired are Ingres’s graphite drawing of him, Niccolò Paganini (1819); Leigh Hunt’s poem, ‘Paganini. A Fragment’ (1831); David d’Angers’s bronze bust, Paganini (1830); Heine’s section on Paganini in his novella, Florentine Nights (1836); Delacroix’s oil painting, Portrait of Niccolò Paganini (1832);Dantan’s portrait statuette, Paganini (1832); Lyser’s caricatures of Paganini (1831); Boulanger’s lithograph, Paganini en prison (1831);Chopin’s Souvenir de Paganini (1881); Schumann’s Études after Paganini Caprices, op 3 (1832) and op 10 (1833); Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini (1851) (a revised version of the original Études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini); Liszt’s ‘La campanella’ (The Little Bell) which is the nickname given to the third of the six Grandes études ;Brahms’s Variations on a theme of Paganini (1863); Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (1934); Casella’s Paganiniana (1941); Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s ‘Capriccio diabolico’ for guitar (1935); Dallapiccola’s ‘Sonatina canonica in mi bemolle maggiore su ‘capricci’ di Niccolò Paganini’ (1946); Lutoslawski’s Variations on a theme of Paganini for 2 pianos (1941).
2. A. Kendall, Paganini. A biography (London: Chappell and Company Ltd., 1982), p. 144.
3. Kendall.The adjectives all occur in Chapter 10, pp. 136-144.
4. J. Sugden, Niccolò Paganini. Supreme Violinist or Devil’s Fiddler? (Kent: Midas Books, 1980), p. 149.
5. G. de Courcy, Paganini, the Genoese, vols. 1& 2. Vol. 1: Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957. Reprinted by New York: Da Capo Press, 1977. Vol. 2: Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957. All page numbers From Vol. 1 refer to the 1977 reprint.
6. H. McGinnis Ferguson, ‘No Gambling at the Casino Paganini’, http://www.debone.com / paggamb.html. 11 pages. Originally published by The Phi Beta Kappa Society in The American Scholar, Winter, 1994.
7. F. J. Fétis, Biographie Universelle des Musiciens, vol. 7 (Brussels: MDCCCXLI); G. C. Conestabile, Vita di Niccolò Paganini, (Milan: Dante Alighieri, 1936); R. de Saussine, Paganini le Magicien (Paris: Gallimard, 1938); J. Pulver, The Romantic Virtuoso (London: Herbert Joseph Press, 1936); A. Kendall, ibid 2; J. Sugden, ibid. 4; A. Walker, Franz Liszt. The Final Years, 1861-86, 2nd revised edition (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997); S. Sitwell, Franz Liszt (London: Faber and Faber, 1934).
8. De Courcy, vol. 1, p. 16.
9. L. Day, Paganini of Genoa (New York: The Macaulay Company, 1929), p. 26.
10. G. Harrys, Paganini in seinen Reisewagen undZimmer, seinen redseligen Stunden, in Gesellschaftlichen Zirkeln undseinen Konzerten (Brunswick: Vieweg, 1830).
11 11. Day, p. 34.
12. See de Courcy, vol. 2, pp. 25–31. De Courcy reprints Paganini’s letter of 21 April, 1831 to the Revue Musicale in which he objects to the journal’s reproduction of the painting (pp. 26-29).
13. De Courcy, vol. 1, p. 133.
14. Pietro Berri (1901-79) was a doctor from Genoa and one of the great Paganini scholars. He wrote Paganini, La vita e le opere (Milan: Bimini, 1982). De Courcy quotes him in vol. 1, p. 133.
15. In a letter to his lawyer-friend, Luigi Germi. Quoted in de Courcy, vol. 1, p. 244.
16. De Courcy, vol. 1, p. 253.
17. De Courcy, vol. 1, p. 278.
18. De Courcy, vol. 1, p. 285.
19. J. M. Schottky, Paganini’s Leben und Treiben als Künstler und als Mensch (Prague: J.G. Calve, 1830), p. 20.
20. De Courcy, vol. 1, p. 301.
21. Schottky in a letter to a friend. Quoted in de Courcy, vol. 1, p. 291.
22. ‘Son enfant joue avec lui […] Il lui tire le nez, les cheveux’. In David d’Angers, Les Carnets d’Angers, ed. André Bruel, 2 vols (Paris: Librairie Plon, 8, 1958), p. 201. The English translation is mine.
23. ‘J’ai été le voir aujourd’hui. Il était assis dans son fauteuil, comme un homme accablé par une longue fatigue. Son petit garçon jouait autour de lui, sautait sur son dos, se roulait sur le tapis, allait tout doucement faire passer une plume à écrire dans la crinière de son père. C’était un lionceau jouant avec un vieux lion’.D’Angers, pp. 198-199. The English translation is mine.
24. De Courcy, vol. 1, pp. 290-291.
25. De Courcy, vol. 1, p. 301.
26. De Courcy, vol. 2, pp. 129-130.
27. De Courcy, vol. 2, p. 159. The autograph of this letter is in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
28. De Courcy, vol. 1, p. 159.
29. De Courcy, vol. 1, p. 164. Paganini was similarly solicitous about providing for his sisters. On 28 February, 1932, he wrote to Germi, who managed most of his finances: ‘I intend to give my sister Nicoletta the interest or revenue on a capital of 20, 600 lire and the country house in Polcevera. Give her my regards and tell her I appreciated her letter. It will also be well to give more liberal aid to my other sister Domenica, if you approve’ (de Courcy, vol. 2, p. 94).
30. The Times, 19 May, 1831.
31. Schottky, p. 394.
32. Janin’s attack appeared in the Journal des Débats, 18 September, 1834. Part of it reads: ‘How does it happen that Paganini has now been in Paris all of a week, incognito, and no one has yet asked him to play the prayer from Moïse for the twentieth and last time? … I regret all the more to see him lost and forgotten in our midst since I know an admirable, sure, infallible way for him to regain universal admiration and respect. He need only take his violin some evening this week and go to any theatre he pleases and play there anything he likes for the benefit of the unfortunate workmen of St Étienne’. Paganini responded to the Journal des Débats on September 20, saying ‘For more than three months in France, I have given no concerts. My shattered health demands the greatest possible repose and I am returning to Genoa, my native city, to remain till I have completely recovered. In Paris, I have given two concerts for the benefit of the poor. Who has the right to think that it would not be a pleasure to give a third?’ Janin followed up this reply with another, even fiercer, attack on 22 September: ‘Paganini’s reply would have been different if he had been offered two louis a bow stroke. Let him depart, burdened with the disdain of the public; let him pass unnoticed like a hawker of adulterated wines or cut-rate books!’ After this Paganini made no further attempt to defend himself.De Courcy, vol. 2, pp. 173-174.
- Quote paper
- Professor Vivienne Suvini-Hand (Author), 2017, Niccolò Paganini. A Re-evaluation of his Legend, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/373684