Guest Blogger Tackles the Devil's Violinist

The Devil’s Violinist: Niccolò Paganini and the Development of the Virtuosic Violinist-Composer

Of all of the composer-violinists known to history, Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840)  stands foremost in my mind as the master virtuoso technician. Not only was he a wizard at the violin, Paganini inspired a long line of virtuosi composers, including pianist-composers Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849) and Franz Liszt (1811–1886), as well as other violinist-composers such as Pablo de Sarasate (1844–1908), Henri Vieuxtemps (1820–1881), and Henryk Wieniawski (1835–1880). It is because of Paganini, so they say, that in the 19th century virtuosity became one of the defining features of musical composition.

Niccolo Paganini

As legend goes, Paganini’s talent was so great; there was no way that it could be natural. People who saw him play were quick to make links between him and the supernatural. Especially popular was the tale that Paganini had made a pact with the devil for his abilities on the violin. In fact, several people claimed that they even saw the devil at Paganini’s elbow as he played!

For a virtuoso violinist who captured the nineteenth-century Romantic imagination, he did not have the same jet-set lifestyle as many of today’s classical music superstars such as Yo-Yo Ma, Yuja Wang, and Joshua Bell. For the majority of his life, Paganini stayed in his native Italy and people, hearing of his reputation, would travel great distances to see him play. All of this attention happened years before Liszt’s concert following—and Liszt is often considered the first pop star! (Liszt himself was a great fan of Paganini and aspired to be as proficient on his instrument, the piano, as Paganini was on the violin.)

A lot of people attribute Paganini’s idiosyncratic way of playing the violin to Marfan’s syndrome, which can cause people to be extraordinarily tall, with long fingers. Accounts of Paganini often include descriptions of his tall, gaunt figure and his long fingers and toes—they knew about his toes because he would perform without shoes! His relatively long fingers would have certainly been conducive to playing the extreme technical passages of many of his violin compositions, and were likely the reason for many of his innovations on the instrument.

Of his pieces, Paganini’s 24 Caprices are the most famous. They are a group of etudes, or studies, where each one highlights a different technical skill on the violin. Technical innovations include double stop trills, the spicato and ricochet bow strokes, fingered octave double stops, “drone” playing where one note is sustained while a melody is played overtop, and extreme string crossings. Though the 24 Caprices have been recorded many times, Jascha Heifetz, perhaps the greatest violin virtuoso of the 20th century, is known for his renditions.

In addition to his impressive and unique physique, few of these violinistic innovations would be possible without the development of the modern violin in sixteenth-century Italy; developments that made the instrument sound louder and brighter.

Even though Paganini’s accomplishments should be—and are—celebrated, he did not exist in a vacuum and other composers must also be given their due for the development of virtuosic violin playing. Seminal composers for the violin literature and technique around that time include J.S. Bach (1685–1750), Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), and Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770). Both Tartini and Vivaldi were important violinists in their own right. In addition to the composers mentioned above, Paganini’s direct influences included the violinist-composers Pietro Locatelli (1695–1764) and Auguste Durand (1770–1834).

Considering the showpiece repertory for violin, a lot of it was directly influenced by the nineteenth-century notion of the Romantic genius, including considerations of Paganini. Difficult, showy, and wildly entertaining, showpieces are still an important part of the repertory for both their popularity with audiences and their ability to push a violinist’s technique to the next level. Pieces like Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Weiniawski’s Scherzo Tarantelle, Fritz Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois, and Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane owe a lot to Paganini’s technical innovations in the first half of the 19th century.

Naturally, there was a decline of the virtuosic violinist-composer by the end of the nineteenth century as compositional tastes changed and such virtuosic playing was seen as shallow and vulgar. Many Romantic composers such as Robert Schumann spoke out actively against shallow displays of virtuosity, wanting a more personal experience with the music. 

Thankfully, virtuosic violin pieces haven’t been relegated to the dustbins of history, and there is an active tradition of their performance in concert halls around the world. As a pedagogical tool, showpieces are invaluable. Today, violinists of all stripes try their hand at Paganini’s 24 Caprices. Many violin students will begin with No. 13 or No. 16, but the beauty of the Caprices is that they each present several technical challenges, and what makes one piece hard for one violinist could be the strength of another. 

To this day Niccolò Paganini is considered both an important composer of violin repertoire and a vital part of our own imagination as violinists and lovers of music.

Austin is a guest blogger at We welcome him aboard, check out his awesome website at Consordini.