Playing with fire
When Paganini was at the peak of his powers, audiences were stunned into disbelief, prompting talk of pacts with the Devil. What, asks Julian Haylock, made the violinist such a phenomenon?
Niccolò Paganini was the right man in the right place at the right time. His trailblazing virtuosity thrilled sensationseeking audiences, his ghoulish stage persona was interpreted by many as evidence of his having signed a pact with the Devil, and his mesmerising presence fed into contemporary fascinations with the paranormal. After first seeing Paganini play, Goethe felt as though he had been ‘hit by a meteor’, Berlioz described him as a ‘blazing comet’, Mendelssohn was left astounded by his ‘faultless execution beyond imagination’, while poet Heinrich Heine likened Paganini’s bow to ‘a magic wand’ and the man himself to ‘a sorcerer commanding the elements.’