Thursday, June 3, 2010

Paganini's Phantom Violin

Niccolo Paganini was such an influential and flamboyant violinist that even a century and a half after his death I heard him referred to frequently as I learned to play rock guitar music. His technical mastery of the instrument was the stuff of legends, inspiring musicians proficient on stringed instruments to push themselves for greater and greater degrees of virtuosity in their playing. Paganini's playing and ability to put on a great show was so well known that even a century later it would serve as the inspiration of his musical descendants when rock and roll guitar playing became a highly technical form of performance in the 1970s. Guitarists ranging from Yngwie Malmsteen to Eddie Van Halen to Steve Vai and Joe Satriani all owe a debt to this early master of highly proficient stage showmanship.

Paganini's biography is a mix of the self-destructive superstar story that we tend to think only belongs in the post-1950s music scene with elements of pure invention that were either developed to denounce him, or that were promoted by him because they were good for business.

Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy in 1782. The strange course of his life was probably set early on when he suffered from measles and was thought dead*. Placed in a burial shroud, he was nearly buried, but was discovered to be alive at the last minute. In time, it would come to be rumored that his mother had been assured by an angel that her son would become the greatest violinist in the world, while another rumor held that his mother had made a pact with Satan to ensure her son's greatness.

Paganini's first violin teacher was his father, a man with a reputation for strictness and harshness towards his son. From there, he was taught by Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa and showed such talent that he was composing his own impressive pieces of music as early as the age of eight. He continued to progress under ever-greater teachers. Those who doubt that an angel or demon assured Paganini's mother of his greatness often claim that it was during his teenage years that Paganini himself made a pact with Satan to ensure his status as a great violinist.

Leaving his home, Paganini soon discovered that he could make a living for himself as a concert violinist, and he abandoned his father, who had become increasingly harsh towards his son. He soon found himself in a position very much like a modern rock star - money was available, as were drink and willing women. He cultivated a distinctive appearance, with shoulder-length hair, a gaunt body, and frequent black suits, he is said to have been frightening to behold. He Became a compulsive gambler, and only stopped gambling when he nearly lost a valuable violin that a friend had given him as a gift. He seduced women whenever possible, though there is evidence that he spent time living with a noble woman with whom he had fallen in love (and during this time he vanished for a period of four years).

Although people continued to pay to see him play, they also began to spread stories about him. In addition to the claims of his or his mother's pact with Satan, a story that he was the son of a demon began to circulate, and at least one concert-goer claimed to have seen Satan helping Paganini play. It's been claimed that people would cross themselves when they saw Paganini in the streets, and that men in London would poke him with their canes to determine whether he was real or supernatural (I'm guessing that these were handy paranormal-detection canes...they just don't make 'em like they used to). Needless to say, just as rumors of Satanic influence helped KISS and Ozzy Osbourne, they were of great financial benefit to Paganini as well. He may or may not have encouraged these types of stories, but he certainly benefited from them.

Paganini finally died in 1840, at the age of 57. Either because of the controversies that surrounded him in life or because he refused last rites before death, the church refused to allow his body to be buried on consecrated ground. The body was temporarily interred in an abandoned leper house (or, according to some accounts, his family's basement or even an olive oil factory), where passing fishermen claim to have heard the sounds of a violin playing, moving Paganini's story out of the realm of flamboyant showman and celebrity and into the realm of the ghost story. His body was later moved Parma, where some stories hold that the violin music was still heard until he was buried in the Parma cemetery two years later. In 1926, his remains were moved to his native Genoa.

*I often hear people dismiss measles as a harmless childhood disease, usually because they take issue with medicines used to prevent or treat measles, but the truth of the matter is that it can be deadly.

Commentary: I have known about Paganini for over twenty years, and I have still never been able to get over just how much his life and career might have served as the blueprint for those of so many 20th century musicians. The claims of Satanic influence would show up with 70s and 80s metal and continue today with Marylin Manson. The story of having made pact with Satan to gain a literally supernatural ability on his chosen instrument was later used by the great Bluesman Robert Johnson (who specifically added that he had met the Devil at a crossroads). His taste for fast living, womanizing, and gambling would also figure heavily in the stories of so many of the 20th centuries music superstars.

The story of his phantom music playing at his first burial-place is interesting for two reasons. The first is that the reasons given for the treatment of his remains vary, and may reflect either the politics or the religion of his day. Sometimes it is said that he was refused proper burial at first because he had led a life of sin (what with the gambling and womanizing), sometimes it is said that he was refused proper burial because of his rumored pact with Satan, and sometimes it is said that he was refused burial because he had refused last rites.

The most likely explanation is that either he was refused proper burial because he had refused last rites (reportedly because he thought that he wasn't yet dying), or that this was used as a technicality to deny burial to a figure who had generated a good deal of controversy. Of course, most of the less-researched (and more sensationalistic) sources hold that he was refused burial because of his alleged demonic ties, but this seems a little far-fetched (though it does make for a great story).

The other interesting thing about the phantom music is that it appears to be symbolic of Paganini not being at rest. It is said that the music played when he had not been buried in consecrated ground, wherever that may have been (next to a factory, in a leper house, in his family's basement, etc.), and that the music was mournful. The music is not reputed to be heard after the body has been moved to a "proper" place of burial. In this sense, it seems to be indicative of the religion of the time, with Paganini suffering until his remains are treated correctly and buried in ground consecrated by the Roman Catholic church.

I wish I could have provided more information on Paganini, he was a fascinating character, but for the purposes of this site, it seemed necessary to provide enough information to give the necessary flavor before cutting to the ghost story and supernatural elements. But I encourage you to follow the links below and learn more about him. Trust me, you'll be glad that you did.

Sources: BBC Website, Guitarra Magazine,, Suite 101, Time Magazine, Internet

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