Sunday, December 13, 2015

Nicolo Paganini: Classical Era Goth?

It is widely believed within the goth community that the subculture had its beginnings when the British post-punk band, Bauhaus, released its first single, Bela Lugosi's Dead, in August of 1979. All things considered, it's pretty hard to disagree with this widely held conception. Still, it is also known that so-called "dark souls" have been around much longer than that. Of course, there was the portrayal of Morticia Addams during the 60's, but she was fictitious. Some consider Nico, who sang with the Velvet Underground during that same decade to be the first goth chick. Others go back much further in time and nominate the European artist Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957) for that position. Then, there are literary giants such as Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly and Horace Walpole to consider. The fact of the matter is that history reminds us of the many so-called dark souls who thrived in earlier times. More likely than not, these would have fit in to our subculture quite nicely were it in existence during their lifetimes.

Dark souls have also inhabited a corner in the world of classical music as well. One such person who may very well qualify is virtuoso violinist, violist, guitarist and composer Nicolo Paganini.

Paganini was born on October 27, 1782 in the Republic of Genoa, now a part of modern-day Italy. By the age of five the young Paganini began learning to play the mandolin under the tutorage of his father. Within two years however, the boy's interest had moved to the violin. His impressive skill with the instrument quickly became apparent and before long, young Paganini had earned various scholarships for studies in violin.  As the boy grew, his skill at playing the violin rapidly superseded the abilities of his teachers. At the age of 18, the young man was appointed as first violin of the Republic of Lucca. Still, it was freelancing that he enjoyed the most.  Eventually, he went on tour across much of Europe and his reputation as a violinist grew exponentially.

Although many other musicians and the public marveled at his musical abilities, Paganini also developed a reputation for being quite unconventional. Over time, he became well known as a gambler and womanizer. Additionally, there were other aspects to his personality that served to reinforce the conception of his unconventional nature.

Just for starters, the violinist employed the use of trills in his musical performances. A trill is defined as a very rapid moving between two adjacent notes. Usually, these notes are only a half or one full tone apart, sometimes resulting in dissonance, notes and intervals that result in a desire for resolution in a more agreeable fashion . Sometimes dissonance can make a musical composition sound evil. In Nicolo Paganini's day, many people considered dissonance the work of the devil. Musical style aside, the violin virtuoso's physical characteristics did little to settle the nerves of his audience.

According to Guitarra Magazine, Paganini "was tall and thin, had a rather long nose, a pale and long-drawn face with hollow cheeks, thin lips that seemed to curl into a sardonic smile, and piercing eyes like flaming coals...

"...Paganini dressed in black, played weaving and flailing, with skinny fingers cavorting over the strings, and contorted shoulders giving him the appearance of a giant flapping bat. Paganini's every movement and every tone emanating from his violin seemed to support the 300-year-old myth that the violin was the "Devil's consort" and that the violinist himself was the Devil."

Indeed, the audience was absolutely spellbound by Nicolo Paganini's every performance. Yet, it was not unusual to observe some making the sign of the cross when at his performances or otherwise in his presence.

Over time, some came to believe that Paganini was in actuality, the Devil himself; or at a minimum, the Devil possessed him during performances. Others believed that a satanic being, a doppelganger of sorts, always sat in the audience during his concerts. This being was identifiable by his long black hair, somber black clothing and eyes that burned like coal. Others claimed that Paganini killed a young woman, imprisoned her soul in his violin and used her intestines as strings for his instrument. Yet, they continued coming to his performances.

In real life, Nicolo Paganini was also a composer. He is best known for his 24 Caprices for Solo Violin. Interestingly enough, Caprice No. 13 is often referred to as The Devil's Laughter. 

During the course of his musical career, Nicolo Paganini both held the public spellbound by his musical genius and yet, unnerved it with his dark fashion sense, playing style and musical taste. If Paganini were alive today, would he qualify as a goth? Would he fit comfortably in the subculture? While no one can say for sure, he clearly must have understood the effect he was having upon audiences as he toured Europe. Surely, he must have been aware of the many rumors circulating about him. Yet, he continued on unapologetically.

One thing is certain however, when Nicolo Paganini left this world on May 27, 1840, he had earned the title as one of the greatest violin virtuosos ever to grace an audience with his presence. It is a title that he holds to this very day--and he always dressed in black! 

Portrait by Daniel Maclise - 1831