The following post was written in collaboration with Senior Music Specialist Susan Clermont.
The label “rock star” tends to conjure images of modern-day bands like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Go-Gos, Queen, or Led Zeppelin. But if we venture further back into the 19th century, virtuoso performing artists like pianist Franz Liszt, bassist Domenico Dragonetti, and pianist Clara Schumann were, in their own way, rock stars of their time. Over a century later, their abilities to both astound and captivate audiences across Europe have become legendary.
One musical figure in particular from the 19th century, however, arguably rivals all others in terms of his rock star status: Nicolò Paganini. The Music Division’s collections hold a wealth of Paganini materials, and a newly-published finding aid provides an abundance of information—gathered and researched by many staff members over several decades—details much of their contents.
Like characterizations of many male rock stars in the modern era, portrayals of Paganini from his life often elicit a “bad boy” image centered on his ability to seduce through music. His talent on the violin surpassed his peers by such a margin that some claimed he had made a pact with the devil to become the greatest virtuoso in history.
One contemporary illustration in particular, an original wash drawing from 1830, depicts a dark figure, bounded by demonic shadows, serenading a mesmerized Maria Anna Bacciochi (Napolean Bonaparte’s sister) from outside her bedchamber. The drawing captures Paganini’s seductive draw, as if he were a poster to be displayed on a young fan’s bedroom walls.
Yet Paganini’s journey to stardom was neither inevitable nor pre-ordained. And like many performing artists of the 20th century, he faced his own scandals and setbacks.
But how do we know any of this information? Paganini lived in an era, after all, without social media posts that could go viral and propel him to stardom (or infamy).
So many of the details regarding Paganini’s life and work come from a remarkable collection of materials acquired by the Music Division. Until 1910, many—but not all—of these materials were in the Paganini family’s possession. The Paganini family sold the materials to an antiquarian dealer. The collection was then bought and sold by several dealers until Maia Bang Hohn, a well-known violin performer and pedagogue, purchased them in 1927. She hoped to assemble as many sources as possible for a planned (but never completed) Paganini biography. After her death, the Music Division purchased Hohn’s archive in 1944 from her husband, Charles Hohn, with funds from the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation and kept it as a distinct unit within the Foundation collection. Since that time, a handful of items have been added to the collection, including both correspondence and personal papers.
But what exactly do all of these materials document and show?
The vast majority of materials come from a short window in Paganini’s career: 1828-1835. Those years include his triumphal tours across Europe, when he was already nearing 50 years old. Before these tours propelled him to fame, he had been successful throughout much of what is now Italy, but only with a concert in Vienna in 1828 did his career really take off.
From 1828-1835, Paganini maintained a variety of small notebooks in which he recorded his insights, touring journeys, addresses, appointments, random thoughts, and even his finances. Left almost completely unwritten were any secrets to his virtuosic skills with the violin or his numerous amorous escapades.
Through the many personal entries scribbled into these notebooks, we can trace the rapid escalation of fame Paganini reached in such a short time. For many of the concerts Paganini recorded both his expenses and net income. For example, between June 3 and August 20, 1831, Paganini played fifteen concerts with a gross income of over £10,000. In 2021 figures, that’s £1,089,538, or nearly $1.5 million! For the fifth concert on June 22, ticket sales totaled £1463, or, $211,832 – for one concert! We can surmise that Paganini likely received at least 2/3 of this amount because the phrase “due terzi a me” [two thirds to me] occurs frequently in his accounts for other concerts.
Paganini’s popularity seemingly new no limits. His services were in constant demand. He was made a baron and received several orders of nobility. His visiting card read:
Le Baron N. Paganini
Commandeur et Chevalier
de plusieurs Ordres
Despite these major financial successes, Paganini’s perceived behavior offstage received more polarizing treatment. Newspapers attacked Paganini on at least one occasion for refusing to appear at a benefit concert. Yet at the height of his popularity, in the 1830s, Paganini started plans for a proposed tour of America. Motives for the proposed trip, however, may have been more self-serving than artistic, and were themselves wrapped in scandal.
In June 1834 Paganini was publicly accused of abducting Charlotte Watson, the 18-year-old daughter of a business associate in London. French and English newspapers alike accused Paganini of buying the young woman expensive jewelry. And in the Music Division’s collection are receipts from a London jeweler dated June 1834! Soon after the scandal, the Watsons emigrated to New York. Yet to further the intrigue, the collection also includes a letter from Watson urging Paganini to come to New York, where he could likely earn double what he did in England. Other letters in the collection document that Paganini made initial plans to visit New York, but his ill health forced him to cancel the trip.
Over 100 hundred pieces of Paganini iconography from the collection likewise document his polarizing reception. Many uphold the image of Paganini as a seductive master of music, heralding him as the “modern Orpheus.”
Despite many flattering drawings of his likeness, caricatures that accentuate his gaunt appearance verging on the grotesque abound in the collection. Some of the least flattering images come from England. Presented as a more grotesque figure, Paganini is shown with loose or dangling violin strings, oddly bent legs and arms, and a receding hairline. Some drawings received captions like “The Modern Apollo (not Belvedere). Receiving the homage of 5,000 persons, after having pocketed £2,000, for two hours’ performance. (Sketched at his last concert at the King’s Theatre.)” or “Signor Paganini. Score of his pecuniary harvests since 1825.”
Why the hostility toward Paganini in the press? Perhaps some people resented a violinist charging such high prices for concerts. Before Paganini, the violin had not been so revered as a solo, virtuosic instrument. Maybe others were upset that so many people were actually willing to pay such outrageous ticket prices to watch and hear him perform. Or perhaps they resented a foreign artist eliciting such sums and popularity. Whatever the cause, these negative caricatures did not seem to dim Paganini’s popularity – or his income – at least until 1834. Rather, it was his failed Paganini-themed casino (a term that at that time referred not exclusively to a gambling establishment, but also to a venue for public meetings, concerts and dancing) that left him in financial ruin. But that is yet another story from his tumultuous, rock-star-like career.
The richness of materials in the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation Collection on Nicolò Paganini offers many more stories beyond what I’ve shared here. To learn more, explore the collection finding aid, and please read some of In the Muse‘s past blog posts related to this virtuoso:
- Cooking up History: Paganini’s Ravioli
- PagaNewni: Composers Rise to the Paganini Challenge–A Paganini Project Update
 Spivacke, Harold, and Library of Congress. Paganiniana. [U.S. Govt. Print. Off., Washington, monographic, 1945], 10.
[2 ]Spivacke, 15.