Happy 233rd birthday to Niccolò Paganini – the greatest violinist who ever lived. Here’s a report of his playing, from the French journal Le Globe, in 1831:
“He seizes his fiddle, hugs it betwixt chin and chest, and fixes on it a look at once of pride, penetration and gentleness. Thus resteth he several seconds, leaving the public at leisure to examine and make him out in his strange originality — to note with curiosity his gaunt body, his lengthy arms and fingers, his dark hair descending to his shoulders, the sickness and suffering denoted in his whole frame, his sunken mouth, his long eagle nose, his wan and hollow cheeks, his large, fine, manifest forehead…and, beneath the shelter and shadow of that front, eyes that dilate, sparkle and flash at every instant!
Behold him a compound of chill irony and electric enthusiasm, of haughtiness, with seeming humility, of sickly languor and fitful, nervous, fatal exultings, of wild oddity, chastened by some hidden and unconscious grace…
He raises his right hand briskly into the air, and dashes his bow down upon the instrument! You anticipate the rupture of all its strings! On the contrary, the lightest, the finest, the most delicate of sounds comes forth to win your surprise. He continues for some moments to sport with your preconceptions, to look askance at you, to irritate you…He teases you, he pleases you: he springs, he runs, he wanders from tone to tone, from octave to octave…extracts, within the space of a few bars, the whole range of chords and sounds possible upon the instrument…Chords that are pure, sweet, melodious, brilliant, stream from beneath his bow; and then come accents of nature that seem to flow from the heart itself, and affect you with a perspiring thrill of delight…A fit of violent distress, a sort of shuddering fury, seizes him, and we are startled, chilled, tormented, by cries which pierce the inmost recesses of our frame…We dare not breathe — we are half suffocated; — fearfully the head burns and the heart aches.
And yet, despite this too positive pain which the unfortunate artist has forced both upon us and himself, he bethinketh him mindfully that ‘tis his vocation to serve for sport to the public…He snatches away, therefore, your ladies with delicate nerves, and your men of effeminacy, from the suffocation and syncope that threaten them. Truce to the cries of agony! Truce to despair! A fantastic chaunt, a wild laugh, springs up — and then succeeds a sort of buffoon dance, to complete the relief of these people, and restore them to life…A reiterated clapping of palms convinces the unhappy purveyor of diversion that he has but too well served the public according to their taste!”
(Translation by George Dubourg, from his 1852 book ‘The Violin: Some account of that leading instrument and its most eminent professors from its earliest date to the present time’)