August 1940
volume LVIII
number 8
page 567, 571

Niccolò Paganini, Guitarist

By George C. Krick

NICCOLO PAGANINI was born in Genoa, Italy, October 27, 1782 and died in Nice May 27, 1840. Who has not heard of Paganini? Tongues and pens have vied with each other in celebrating his wonderful powers and recording his extraordinary genius. The excitement produced throughout Europe by his marvelous manipulation of the violin remains unparalleled in musical history; but although there exists a whole realm of literature on this artist as a wizard of the violin his mastery of the guitar and his great fondness for it have received but meagre and scanty recognition. There is no doubt that his intimate association with the guitar and mandolin exerted a powerful influence over his violin playing, helping to form that individuality and peculiarity of style which placed him far in advance of all other violin virtuosi.

His father, Antonio, a store keeper and amateur musician, was quite a skillful performer on the mandolin and gave all his leisure time to the study and practice of it. The boy Niccolò showed his musical talent at a tender age and his father gave him instruction on the mandolin and later handed him over to more skillful teachers. Being compelled to practice many hours daily, he soon outstripped his father's musical knowledge, and when five years of age he was placed under Servetto for instruction on violin and six months later he continued his studies with Costa, the foremost violinist in Genoa. Under his tuition young Niccolò made such rapid progress that at eight years of age he was performing three times a week in the churches and also at private musicales. About the year 1795 young Paganini was placed under Alessandro Rolla, a famous violin virtuoso residing in Parma. Rolla was also an accomplished guitarist and frequently accompanied his pupil on the guitar, and it is quite probable that at this period Paganini became interested in this instrument. At fifteen years of age he began his concert tours through Italy and for several years he was flattered to intoxication by his rapid successes and the unbounded enthusiasm which greeted his many public appearances as violin virtuoso.

The year 1801, however, saw a remarkable change in his mode of life. Notwithstanding his remarkably successful career as violinist, he put aside the violin, which had been the means of bringing him such fame, and for more than three years devoted himself entirely to the study of the guitar. During this period he was living at the chateau of a lady of rank, and the guitar was her favorite instrument. Paganini gave himself up to the practice of the guitar as eagerly and with the same amount of concentration as he had previously done on the violin, and his mastery of the instrument was so thorough and rapid that his performances became as celebrated as those of the guitar virtuoso Regondi. Schilling says of him: "Niccolò Paganini is such a great master of the guitar that it is hard to decide whether he is greater on the violin or guitar." Douburg in his notice of Paganini says, respecting this period of his life: "To those early days belong also the fact of Paganini's passion for the guitar, nor did he resume in earnest that peculiar symbol of his greatness, the violin, till after the lapse of three years." Riemann in his account of the artist says: "He played the guitar as an amateur, but with the skill of a virtuoso." Ferdinand Carulli, the guitar virtuoso, says in his famous method: "The fact may not be generally known that Paganini was a fine performer on the guitar and that he composed most of his airs on this instrument, arranging and amplifying them afterwards for the violin according to his fancy."

Public Performances

Paganini was intimate and performed in public with the leading guitar virtuosi of that time, and the guitar exercised a great influence and fascination over his musical nature. During his whole career he employed it as his accompanying instrument with his pupils and musical friends; and the majority of his compositions published during his lifetime include a part for the guitar. This was the instrument he fondled and caressed during those long periods of illness, when his strength was not sufficient for him to resort to the more exacting position required by the violin. To an intimate friend inquiring of Paganini his reason for devoting so much attention to the guitar, he replied: "I love it for its harmonies, it is my constant companion on all my travels."

In the year 1805 Paganini with his violin again started out on a concert tour and the following years were a series of brilliant triumphs, which it is not necessary to enumerate.

While in Paris, Paganini frequently visited J. B. Vuillaume the violin maker, and on one occasion took a fancy to a guitar made by Grobert of Mirecourt. Vuillaume graciously placed this guitar at his disposal during his visit. When ready to leave Paris, Paganini returned the instrument after writing his autograph in ink on its unvarnished top near the left side of the bridge. Later this instrument was presented to Hector Berlioz, who also was a guitar enthusiast and who placed his autograph on the top opposite to that of the other immortal name, and today this historical instrument is preserved in the Museum of the National Conservatory of Music, Paris.

Last Years

Paganini was a very intimate friend of the guitar virtuoso Luigi Legnani and they often toured together giving joint concerts. In the summer of 1834 Legnani spent several months at the Villa Gajona, Paganini's country residence, where they occupied their time rehearsing new compositions, and in October, 1836, they appeared together at concerts in Parma and other cities in northern Italy. Several trips to Paris and London followed, but in the fall of 1839 ill health compelled Paganini to return to his native land, and his trip to Nice to avoid the winter of northern Italy proved his last journey.

It is a significant fact that all of the compositions of Paganini, with but one exception, contained parts for the guitar, this only exception being the "Twenty-four Caprices for Violin, Op. 1." The best known of the others are: "Six Sonatas for Violin and Guitar, Op. 2"; "Six Sonatas for Violin and Guitar, Op. 3"; "Three Grand Quartets for Violin, Viola, Violoncello and Guitar, Op. 4"; "Three Grand Quartets for Violin, Viola, Violoncello and Guitar, Op. 5"; "Nine Quartets for Violin, Viola, Violoncello and Guitar," without opus number; and "Variations di Bravura on Airs from 'Mose', for Violin and Guitar."