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Niccolò Paganini Sold His Soul To The Devil ?

Many of you will know the story of Robert Johnson, the blues guitarist who, so the story goes, met the Devil at a crossroads and sold his soul in exchange for his extraordinary ability. You may also know that this was not an isolated incident. Tales of musicians choosing fame, talent and knowledge over eternal salvation crop up time again and stretch back to the early modern period. One of the first virtuosos to be accused of forming a pact with the devil was the celebrated Italian composer and violinist Niccolò Paganini, otherwise known as ‘The Devil’s Violinist’.

The idea of the Luciferian bargain did not begin with Paganini. The cultural motif has been around as long as Christianity and is exemplified in the legend of Faust. The idea springs from Christian ideas about witchcraft and usually involves a Christian subject trading their soul with the Devil (sometimes a demon called Mephistopheles) in exchange for youth, knowledge, wealth or fame. In other words, all the good stuff. Many Faustian stories feature a moralising end, with the wagerer doing his best to outwit the Devil only to be consumed by the fires of hell. Bummer.

The Faustian pact has historically been used to explain the astonishing virtuosity of certain musicians. Paganini’s Luciferian encounter was foreshadowed by the Baroque composer Giuseppe Tartini, a Venetian who died ten years before Paganini’s birth. In 1713, Tartini had a dream in which the Devil appeared to him and promised to be at his service at all times. To seal the deal, Tartini presented the Devil with his violin. Bow in hand, Lucifer played the composer a solo of transcendent beauty, and when Tartini awoke, he immediately grabbed his violin to recreate the music he’d just heard. This composition, his ‘Violin Sonata in G Minor’, became known as ‘The Devil’s Trill’.

Decades later, the child prodigy took up Tartini’s mantle. Born in 1982 in Genoa, Paganini began playing the mandolin at the age of five, the violin aged seven, and made his public debut at 11. Four years later, he was touring the concert halls of Europe. Italy had already produced many virtuosos by this time, but none like Paganini. His talent was regarded as being beyond the earthly realm, and rumours quickly spread that his mother had sold his soul to the devil so that he could become a great violinist. At an early concert in Vienna, for example, one audience member claimed they’d seen the devil helping Paganini play.

As a student, Paganini out-mastered his tutors time and time again. Of course, with precocious talent came an appetite for self-destruction. The violinist’s fame made him a heavy drinker, gambler and serial womaniser. Having developed a reputation as a rake, rumours spread of Paganini butchering women, using their intestines as violin strings and then imprisoning their souls in the body of his Stradivarius. Some claimed that the screams of these unfortunate souls could be heard from his instrument during live performances.

Paganini’s skill was certainly unmatched. As one of the first violinists to perform live without sheet music, he had to memorise incredibly complex pieces such as his ’24 Caprices for Solo Violin’ by heart. Then there were the techniques and articulations he pioneered: showy bow bounces (spiccato), left-hand pizzicato and harmonics. He is believed to have been able to play 12 notes per second, something it is now believed he was able to achieve due to his unusual finger length, which allowed him to play three octaves in one hand span. Today we might call that Marfan syndrome. In the 19th century, they called it the Devil’s work. Sam Kemp


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