Niccolò Paganini: His Life and Work

Niccolò Paganini: His Life and Work
By Stephen Samuel Stratton
A review by Greysolynne Hyman

Stephen Samuel Stratton’s biography of Niccolò Paganini is both readable and informative. One of the most appealing features of this book is Stratton’s use of direct quotations in his unbiased presentation of his subject.

There are many legends about the great violin virtuoso. One of the most familiar is, of course, that Paganini must have been in league with the devil in order to have developed such remarkable skill with his instrument. In the early 1800s, this was a serious accusation. Paganini countered it by publishing a letter from his mother which made it clear that he was not the son of the devil. Stratton provides us with the text of this letter.

It is especially delightful to read the reactions of contemporary composers Frédéric Chopin, Ignaz Moscheles, and Louis Spohr as well as critics when they heard Paganini in concert. Stratton provides us with excerpts from newspapers and magazines/journals.

The book is replete with engrossing images—drawings, paintings, and statues of the great Genoese violinist; photos of original concert bills; and, finally, pictures of the house where he died in Nice and the tomb where is interred in Parma.

Stratton is careful to provide a balanced view of Paganini. We learn that he was criticized for the high prices he set on his concert tickets but also of his many performances for the benefit of the poor. Paganini had little formal education other than in music. However, he developed his own financial accounting system and kept those records in a little red book under his pillow.

The final chapter of the book not only lists Paganini’s extant compositions but also describes each of them in detail, including works that have been lost. In earlier chapters, Stratton devoted meticulous attention to Paganini’s performances of his own pieces during his career. Ever the shrewd businessman, the virtuoso played his own works almost exclusively in concert.

I found this book about the most famous violinist of all time who counted Lord Byron, Prince Metternich, Gioachino Rossini, and Hector Berlioz among his friends to be just as engaging as Niccolò Paganini himself.

This book is available in a variety of electronic formats, paperback, or, if you prefer, in a gilt-edged, leather-bound edition.

This book review appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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