Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Devil's Son

Niccolò Paganini was an Italian violinist with a bit of a dramatic flair and unusual past. Paganini’s father began teaching his son the violin at a very early age- some sources even claim he was only three! Even at this early age, Paganini was such a virtuoso that the first rumors began to spread. Some people said that his mother sold her soul to the Devil for her son to be a master violinist. Whether or not this is true, the rumors only got worse. Legend has it that Paganini’s father used to lock his son in the basement for days at a time, forcing him to play the violin nonstop. If Paganini did stop, his father would beat and whip him. Miraculously, the music never did stop after that, and Paganini claimed that the Devil would sit and play while he ate and slept.

 Eventually Paganini escaped his father, but his motivation surprisingly never wavered. He continued to practice 15 hours a day, and began touring the country. Paganini was the first violinist who memorized his pieces instead of reading sheet music during his performances. He also developed many fingering techniques still in use today. For example, he would deliberately mis-tune his strings to play in multiple keys at once, he would bounce the bow on the strings, implemented pizzicato (plucking the strings), and use extensive harmonics. He could also play twelve notes per second, and three octaves of notes across the four strings. Sometimes he would also write entire pieces solely using the G-string. Although he never really spoke of his creative process, it seems that most of his inspiration would just happen in the moment and that he'd play what he felt like doing. A famous story is that his strings would break during concerts, but instead of replacing them, he would continue playing just on the remaining ones. Once, all but one of his strings broke, which is how he got the idea of writing entire pieces for only one string.
(It should be noted that Paganini potentially had Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that can lengthen limbs. Although his fingers weren’t particularly long, they were extremely flexible and multi—jointed. Thus, it was concluded that his hands were probably warped from so much practice from an extremely young age).
Paganini’s motivation was both extremely intrinsic and extrinsic. He motivated himself to play simply because he enjoyed playing. However, he did also enjoy playing the part of the “Devil’s Son.” Very thin and pale, Paganini would wear all black to concerts and arrive in a black coach pulled by four black horses. By his 30s, Paganini skipped practicing because he only delighted in playing concerts, even composing his pieces the day of the performance. 
Example of Paganini's Sheet Music
 Paganini’s life really supports Gardner’s ideas that extreme discipline often leads to quick success (367). Paganini played his first concert at 15 in conjunction with his father’s mandolin playing. Unlike many of Gardner’s creatives, however, Paganini’s works were pretty accepted during his time. The audience was often brought to tears, and another rumor surfaced that Paganini could literally hypnotize and control them with his playing. He would be mobbed in the streets, his concerts would sell out, and he was even considered to be music’s first rock star. My personal favorite rumor is that the Devil would appear onstage as Paganini’s double and play with him. 
Modern video game character based off of Paganini
So does Paganini actually owe all of his success to the Devil? Whether or not these rumors are true, it’s no rumor that Paganini became a master violin player. He created lasting pieces of music and violin techniques that are still used today. The dedication to his craft was outstanding, and he even died playing the violin on his deathbed. When he was buried five years later (turns out being the potential son of the Devil has some drawbacks, like needing to appeal to the Church in order to be buried), it was said that music could still be heard coming from his coffin long after.

P.S. Apparently there was a movie made about him called The Devil’s Violinist. I haven’t watched it, but it got decent reviews.
My weird collection of knowledge about people with interesting pasts.


  1. This is really interesting. I never realized that one person created such a wide variety of techniques for playing the violin. I'm not terribly musically talented, but I've been to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and seen some of these techniques carried out, like plucking the strings of the violin. I find it really intriguing that once he left his father and the abuse that he did not stop playing. He obviously had an intrinsic motivation to continue to play, though the extrinsic motivation of avoiding the abuse had been taken away. I wonder if there are many other creatives who had been initially treated this way, but continued the process following?

  2. I wonder if he would have gotten into music without the push from his father. It's interesting because I feel like most people we think of as creative start projects or studies based on a natural interest. Such strong direction may have led others to lash out or move away from music as he got older. He was so heavily pushed and underwent abusive training, it's a wonder he cared to carry on later in life. Something about his life and career is somewhat haunting, which definitely adds to his style and mystery.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.