Paganini’s Early Violin Performances

The violin prodigy Niccolò Paganini, who undertook his first concert tour at the age of fifteen, amazed audiences with his feats of agility, as well as his passionate stage presence, and became one of the Romantic era’s most famous examples of the emotionally absorbed artist.

Summary of Event

During the early stages of Niccolò Paganini’s career, an important transformation was occurring in the lives of musicians, mirroring changes in politics, economics, and other dimensions of life at this time. As power structures shifted, merit and individual initiative became more important, and social status became more fluid. Rather than remaining humble servants of the aristocracy and the Church, musicians such as Paganini struck out boldly on their own and were supported to some extent by members of the rising middle class who attended their concerts, as well as by more traditional, aristocratic sponsors. [kw]Paganini’s Early Violin Performances (1795-1797)
[kw]Violin Performances, Paganini’s Early (1795-1797)
[kw]Performances, Paganini’s Early Violin (1795-1797)
Violin music
[g]Italy;1795-1797: Paganini’s Early Violin Performances[3200]
[c]Music;1795-1797: Paganini’s Early Violin Performances[3200]
Paganini, Niccolò
Rolla, Alessandro
Paer, Ferdinando
Locatelli, Pietro
Napoleon I
Napoleon I;music patronage

There was already an established tradition of solo violin performance [p]Music;performance in Italy during the time of Paganini’s first concerts, and it is quite likely that Italian audiences were more demanding than the foreign concert attendees who would be so amazed by his technique in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Many of the musicians active in Paganini’s early years were little more than entertainers, however, hoping to attract an easily bored, casual audience with musical acrobatics and tricks to hold their attention. In his earliest concerts, the young Paganini imitated animal sounds as part of his act. As an adult, he dropped these more theatrical gimmicks, but he always retained a dramatic persona.

There were some parallels between Paganini’s early experiences and those of other great musicians. Like the young Ludwig van Beethoven, Beethoven, Ludwig van he was forced to practice long hours by his father, Antonio Paganini. Paganini’s father also arranged for the first concerts to be given by his son, as Leopold Mozart had done for the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus and his sister Nannerle a generation before.

Antonio Paganini was an amateur mandolinist who worked on the docks of Genoa, one of Europe’s major seaports. He gave Niccolò his first lessons in music and, seeing that his son was gifted, made sure that he received lessons from capable Genovese musicians, such as violinists Giovanni Cervetto Cervetto, Giovanni (Giovanni Servetto) Servetto, Giovanni and Giacomo Costa and the opera composer Francesco Gnecco. Gnecco, Francesco Antonio demanded a return on this investment, insisting that Niccolò maintain a grueling practice schedule, and he did not allow the sickly young boy much time to run and play. Giacomo Costa, Costa, Giacomo one of Paganini’s violin teachers, was active in both sacred and secular music and suggested that the boy begin playing in church on Sundays in order to gain experience playing in public. In this way, a lifetime of performance began when Paganini was about twelve years old.

Although he received professional training on the violin, Paganini retained a fondness for the guitar, which was very popular in Italy, and his first composition, “Variazioni sulla Carmagnola,” which he performed at the Teatro di S. Agostino in Genoa in 1795, was a duet for violin and guitar. This piece, written when he was only twelve or perhaps even earlier, also showed Paganini’s interest in the “theme and variations” structure common to both the elite and vernacular musical styles that he inherited. By repeating a harmonic structure within a strict metrical framework, a musician could create increasingly complex melodic patterns, and for a virtuoso like Paganini, the possibilities were infinite. The fourteen variations of Paganini’s first composition were built on the structure of a well-known song that reflected the cultural links between northwestern Italy and France. Named after a town in the Piedmont region, which like Genoa is geographically close to France, “Carmagnola” “Carmagnola” (Paganini)[Carmagnola] was a favorite song of the French revolutionaries who had gained power earlier in the decade.

Paganini learned rapidly and developed some of his own musical techniques, including sound effects such as blowing across the ridge of the violin to imitate the sound of an organ. He was very independent artistically and had benefited both from the intuitive rote learning of the vernacular music he learned from his father and from the notation-centered approach of the trained musicians under whom he studied. His teachers recommended that he study with Alessandro Rolla, a well-known violinist and conductor in the town of Parma. His father agreed, and in 1795, at the age of thirteen, Paganini gave a special fund-raising concert in order to support the endeavor. He traveled to Parma and met Rolla, and the older musician was deeply impressed when he heard Paganini sight-reading one of Rolla’s own pieces. Rolla accepted him as an equal and introduced him to Ferdinando Paer and other musicians, who gave lessons to the young prodigy. Paganini returned to Genoa in 1796 and continued giving concerts to enthusiastic audiences.

Events in the region soon led to more travel and to Paganini’s first concert tour. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy in 1796, and his troops occupied Genoa. In 1797, Napoleon abolished the state’s existing government and absorbed Genoa into his Ligurian Republic. When the British fleet blockaded Genoa’s harbor, Paganini’s family, which still depended on Antonio’s income from the docks, was under economic pressure, and Antonio decided to move south to Livorno to look for work. This move resulted in new opportunities for his son as well. Paganini played concerts not only in Livorno, where he played for the British consul, but also in other cities in northern Italy. Audiences loved his playing, and his confidence as a performer grew significantly.


The confidence and experience gained from Paganini’s early performances shaped his later career. In 1801, Paganini decided to move to Lucca, where he would live for the next decade, while continuing to travel to other cities to give concerts. By this time, he was earning enough money to become financially independent and was no longer under the authority of his overbearing father. In contrast to the incredible discipline of his childhood, his personal life as a young adult was extremely chaotic and impulsive. This period coincided with the rule of Napoleon, who appointed his sister Elisa Paganini, Elisa as princess of Lucca in 1805. Paganini served in her court during this time and dedicated an orchestral composition to Napoleon. However, in 1810, Paganini left the court and returned to touring as an independent musician.

For his remaining thirty years of life, Paganini continued to explore the frontiers of technique on his instrument as a performer and composer. Eventually, he played outside Italy in most of the major cities throughout Europe, and he became almost a cult figure. He promoted his performances with a flair for publicity and showmanship and cultivated an air of mystery. Although he may have amazed international audiences who had never heard such playing, and who even gossiped about possible supernatural connections, all of it was built on the solid foundation of skills he had acquired through his years of rigorous practice as a young boy and the centuries of tradition preceding him. This tradition included the compositions of Pietro Locatelli, Locatelli, Pietro whose twenty-five caprices for solo violin probably were the models for Paganini’s own twenty-four caprices, which took the use of special techniques even further.

Paganini had a unique background that reflected both elite and folk traditions, and his music was accessible to many kinds of listeners, making him an ideal figure to participate in the social transition from elite and church sponsorship of musicians to a wider and more middle-class audience. With time, disillusionment over political idealism led to a general recognition of the suffering and passion associated with the creative spirit. The role of the virtuoso soloist became associated with voluntary self-sacrifice, emphasizing the intense concentration and emotional expression required for these performances. For popular audiences, the gaunt figure of Paganini became associated with magic and the occult, but to the Romantic intellectuals, he personified the struggles of the heroic individual.

Musically, Paganini made extensive use of special effects, including many kinds of harmonics, bouncing the bow on the strings, scordatura (alternate tunings of the strings), unusual left-hand fingerings and stretches, use of the left-hand fingers to pluck the strings, use of a single string (usually the thickest G-string) for entire pieces, and others. In his later years, his compositions became part of standard curriculum for aspiring violinists, and the precedents he set for solo performers of all instruments have inspired many generations of musicians.

Further Reading

  • Borer, Philippe. The Twenty-Four Caprices of Niccolò Paganini: Their Significance for the History of Violin Playing and the Music of the Romantic Era. Zurich, Switzerland: Stiftung Zentralstelle der Studentenschaft der Universität Zürich, 1997. Dissertation exploring the characteristics, background, and context of these important solo works.
  • Connelly, Frances S. Modern Art and the Grotesque. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Cultural and historical analysis, including a section on Paganini and the aesthetics of the Romantic period.
  • Kolneder, Walter. Amadeus Book of the Violin: Construction, History, and Music. Pompton Plains, N.J.: Amadeus Press, 1998. Updated English translation from German of a monumental work on the violin, its players, and its composers, with appropriate attention to Paganini. Includes music examples, full references, and index.
  • Metzner, Paul. Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill, and Self-Promotion in Paris During the Age of Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Includes coverage of Paganini and others in the context of the cultural influence of the French Revolution, resulting in an emphasis upon personal accomplishments instead of traditional power structures.
  • Roth, Henry. Violin Virtuosos from Paganini to the Twenty-First Century. Los Angeles: California Classics Books, 1997. While its second chapter is completely devoted to Paganini, the book also includes frequent references to him throughout the later chapters, showing his continued influence on subsequent generations of eminent solo violinists.

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