Niccolo Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy, on October 27, 1782, the third of six children of his parents Antonio and Teresa Bocciardo Paganini. His father supplemented his trader’s income by playing the mandolin. Paganini was only five years old when he started learning how to play the mandolin. He had moved to the violin by the time he was seven years old. He earned numerous lesson scholarships due to the fact that his talents for music were quickly recognized.
Paganini studied with local teachers until his talents surpassed that of his instructors. His father took him to Parma to seek instructions from Alessandro Rolla. When Rolla heard Paganini play, he referred the young boy to his own teacher, Ferdinando Paer. Paganini later studied with Paer’s teacher, Gasparo Ghiretti. Paganini’s composition style was influenced by Paer and Ghiretti even though he did not study with them long.
The Paganini family sought refuge in their country property during the March 1796 French invasion of northern Italy. Paganini may have learned to play the guitar during this period. He did not play the guitar for public concerts but preferred to play in private moments. He later described the guitar as his “constant companion” while on concert tours.
By 1800 when Paganini was 17 years old, he played in concerts in Livorno. In 1801 Paganini was appointed first violin of the Republic of Lucca, but he made a “substantial portion of his income from freelancing.” He apparently was well-known for being a “gambler and womanizer.”
In 1805, Lucca was annexed by Napoleonic France, and the region was ceded to Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi. Paganini became a violinist for the Baciocchi court, while giving private lessons to Elisa’s husband, Felice. In 1807, Baciocchi became the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and her court was transferred to Florence. Paganini was part of the entourage, but, towards the end of 1809, he left Baciocchi to resume his freelance career.
Paganini gained popularity with the local audience but was not known outside the local area until he gave a concert in Milan in 1813. His performance was so outstanding that he attracted the attention of “other prominent, though more conservative, musicians across Europe.”
Pope Leo XII honored Paganini in 1827 with the Order of the Golden Spur, his fame begin to spread across Europe.
In August 1828 he started a concert tour in Vienna and stopped at “every major European city in Germany, Poland, and Bohemia until the tour ended in Strasbourg in February 1831. He performed other tours in Paris and Britain.
Paganini composed his own works and modified the works, mostly concertos, written by others. He was a violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer.
He was the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his time, and left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique. His 24 Caprices for Solo Violin Op. 1 are among the best known of his compositions, and have served as an inspiration for many prominent composers.
Paganini apparently never married, but he had one son, Achille Cyrus Alexander Paganini. The great musician suffered from chronic illnesses throughout his life, and his extravagant lifestyle only added to his health problems. As early as 1822 he was diagnosed with syphilis, and his remedy for the illness increased the problems with his health. In 1834 he was treated for tuberculosis in Paris, and he ended his concert career and returned to Genoa in September of that year.
Paganini opened a casino in Paris in 1836, but it failed immediately. Left in “financial ruin,” he “auctioned off his personal effects, including his musical instruments, to recoup his losses.” Leaving Paris at Christmas time in 1838, Paganini to Marseilles and then to Nice where his health condition became worse.
In May 1840, the Bishop of Nice sent Paganini a local parish priest to perform the last rites. Paganini assumed the sacrament was premature, and refused.
A week later, on 27 May 1840, Paganini died from internal hemorrhaging before a priest could be summoned. Because of this, and his widely rumored association with the devil, the Church denied his body a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years and an appeal to the Pope before the Church let his body be transported to Genoa, but it was still not buried. His body was finally buried in 1876, in a cemetery in Parma. In 1893, the Czech violinist Frantisek Ondricek persuaded Paganini’s grandson, Attila, to allow a viewing of the violinist’s body. After this episode, Paganini’s body was finally reinterred in a new cemetery in Parma in 1896.