Violinists have often been assumed to be feckless wastrels. In 1802, Wilhelm Triest wrote a pen-portrait of this popular cliché, one which Paganini seemed far from anxious to contradict, but maybe to uphold, perhaps pre-empting the adage that ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’ Triest’s list of the common solecisms of the debauched violin virtuoso, included, “Immodesty, bizarre temperament, and a general tendency towards gambling, the opposite sex, and alcohol.’ [Gooley P 89]
At the turn of the 19th century, young professional musicians launched their careers by travelling between major cultural centres giving concerts and attempting to attract offers of suitable employment. Mozart’s letters home from Paris give an insight into this process. Niccolo Paganini was in his mid-forties before he travelled to Vienna for his first international tour in 1828. As a travelling virtuoso making his living by attracting paying audiences, Paganini had to be able to appeal to as wide a range of tastes as possible. His programmes included pieces which feature farmyard impressions, evocations of the supernatural and well-publicised stunts like playing complex music only on the G string. He exploited his poor health, taking advantage of his cadaverous appearance during the frightening epidemics of the 1830s.
Paganini endorsed Schottky’s biography of him as countering the “calumnies of his enemies” but he seems to have allowed rumours to circulate uncountered for many years while he was in Italy. He had a reputation as a miser – “Signor Paganiente” (Mr Pay-Nothing) – and the prices at his concerts provoked satire and press opprobrium. He was alleged to be a convicted murderer who had developed his one-string virtuoso technique in a prison cell. He was supposed to be in league with the Devil, to gamble, to womanise… It was only in Prague and in Belgium that people seem to have been too scared to go to his concerts at all; elsewhere he was constantly the subject of musical comment or gossip in the press.
The story of his being imprisoned was given further, if apocryphal, credibility, by Stendhal in 1824. It has to be noted that this work was published four years before Paganini left the Italian peninsular. In his Vie de Rossini, Stendhal alleged that Paganini had learnt the violin whilst incarcerated. He wrote:
“This radiant soul did not learn his wonderful craft through eight long years of practise at a conservatoire, but unlucky in love was, as is often said, for a long time confined to prison. Alone and abandoned, as he lay in chains, all he had was the Violin. He learnt, to give expression to his deepest feelings through his tones, and the long nights of his imprisonment were sufficient for him to attain a mastery of this means of speech.” [Vie de Rossini, Stendhal]
Paganini was publicly infuriated by the article. In a letter written to Germi from Venice on the 24th July 1824 he begged him to write an article denouncing Stendhal, whose writing he found “idiotic”. He was so incensed that he copied out the whole article in the letter that he sent to his letter. [24th July 1824 -La Pagina No 55]
Whatever calumny that Stendhal was involved in perpetuating, one thing is particularly worthy of note. Stendhal observed that the imprisonment could be a reason for the speech-like precision of expression which Paganini had cultivated, his ability to articulate emotions and ideas on his violin which had never been witnessed before.
Of course, Paganini was very aware of the publicity that accrued from the publication of Stendhal’s misleading piece, and the denunciation which Germi was enjoined to write. On the 27th November 1824, writing from Trieste, he noted that Germi’s refutation of Stendhal’s libel had “caused a furore in Venice”-clearly, mission accomplished. [La Pagina No 60]
The story of Paganini’s imprisonment refused to die. In 1904 Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin published A Village Stradivarius; in the following passage, a schoolboy identifies with Paganini:
“He was caught occasionally, but not often; and even when he was, there were mitigating circumstances, for he was generally put under the teacher’s desk for punishment. It was a dark close, sultry spot, but when he was well seated, and had grown tired of looking at the triangle of black elastic in the teacher’s ‘congress’ shoe, and tired of wishing it was his instead of hers, he would tie one end of a bit of thread to the button of his gingham shirt, and, carrying it round his left ear several times, make believe he was Paganini languishing in prison and playing on a violin with a single string.” [1904 Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin A Village Stradivarius]
Clearly, Paganini’s pleasure at the success of Germi’s rebuttal of Stendhal was to be short-lived.