April 24, 2018
Angelic to Demonic: Paganini and the Violin
Johnny and the devil faced off, exchanging quick musical runs back and forth. Although the two are playing the same instrument, Johnny’s skill was greater than the devil and he won the bet. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is a modern example of the violin’s, or in this case the fiddle’s, association with the devil. This is a result of cultural beliefs linking the devil to string instruments, beginning centuries ago. Whether cherubs or devils are depicted with the instrument, there is a cultural notion that the violin has spiritual connections. Niccolo Paganini was a gifted violinist who helped push the violin from its association with angel, to its more contemporary link with the devil. Through Paganini’s abnormal appearance and behaviors, society’s opposition towards overly emotional music, and Paganini’s next-level talent, the violin switched from association with angels to association with the devil during the early 19th century.
The violin and its predecessor, the viol, became associated with the devil as early as the 16th century. However, this was not always the case, as violins were previously thought to be the instrument of the angels, only second in anglicism to the harp. The link between violins and angels can be traced back centuries before these demonic stigmas, and is most evident in visual art. One example of this correlation between violins and angels is in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. When the cathedral was reconstructed into its current gothic style in the early 14th century, there were paintings of angels holding viols depicted on the walls. Another example of paintings portraying angels and violins together is in Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, dated back to the 1480s; this painting depicts cherubs holding bowed string instruments. In addition, it is believed that this piece was part of a larger altarpiece, showing a greater connection between violins and spirituality.
Although “devil musicians” were portrayed in medieval art, most were seen playing instruments such as horns and percussion instruments. There is one exception in a 13th century English Psalter, where one of these “devils” is playing a bowed instrument. Despite stringed instruments being held in higher regard than percussion and horns, they were still seen as secondary to the human voice, as well as harp and flute. One medieval Romanian folk story includes the lines, “because the flute was made by God, it is blest, so that its song might be pleasant; but the fiddle, a work of the devil, so that he might be beaten with it” (Berger 308). In addition, vocal music was the acceptable form of secular and sacred music until many centuries later. One reason the violin was seen as secondary to the voice was that musicians and composers claimed the violin sounded like the human voice. The harmonics and range of the violin is similar to the human voice, drawing connections between the two instruments. A German cultural phenomenon is that the devil cannot sing; in medieval German repertoire, the devil is seen shouting or speaking. Because stringed instruments were created by man, and therefore imitating man, there was fear that the instrument could imitate evil and influence the listener to commit sins. Although instruments were utilized more in Renaissance music, they were still seen as subordinate to the voice and most often used as accompaniment to the voice. The voice was seen as pure and capable of accurately portraying the stories and emotions of pieces though vocal inflections and through singing the text. On the other hand, the violin may capture the musical nuances, but was thought as lacking the purity and meaning that the voice is known for.
Despite the violin being associated with angels and devils, the reason for this switch is not so much a religious reason, but a cultural one. Paganini is one of the main reasons the violin became linked with the devil. He was a rockstar, and although his music was second to none, the general public viewed his lifestyle and appearance as unwholesome. First, Paganini was born with physical problems, which researchers believe was either Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or Marfan’s syndrome. Both syndromes create problems with the body’s connective tissue, making bodily growth and repair difficult. One reason researchers believe Paganini suffered from one of these syndromes is from letters and papers describing his fingers as elongated and hyperextended. Because of his long fingers, Pagagnini had a three-octave reach on his instrument and could play with virtuosity that had never been seen before. Rumors spurred that he could bend his fingers to a 90º angle and that he could break a saucer with his thumb and pointer finger. For this reason, he was also known as “Rubber Man” for his fingers’ dexterous abilities. Also, Paganini suffered from a chronic cough and was supposedly treated with mercury-based ointment and syrups. This led to him going suddenly colloquial, going partially blind, and ruining his teeth.
Aside from playing ability, Paganini led a “rockstar” life, including addictions to gambling and women. First, Paganini was known for having multiple love affairs, and for this reason never settled down or had a stable relationship. In addition, Paganini had a severe gambling addiction, which once caused him to pawn off his violin after losing all his money in bet. Even after returning to music and gaining a steady income, Paganini invested in a casino-like venue, which eventually went bankrupt. He was “a womanizer and gambler. He further fueled his legend by frequent concert cancellations, often stemming from a range of ailments including syphilis and depression” (Schweitze). It is fair that Paganini had an addictive personality when it came to women, money, and gambling.
Paganini was also seen as a Mephistophelean figure, as he possessed the wit, trickery, and wickedness associated with the devil. Although not his fault, rumors of his behaviors and past spread throughout Europe. One rumor was Paganini was a murderer; some believed he only killed one elderly man where others believed him to be a serial killer. Other rumors were that Paganini turned into the devil during his performances, or that a devil spawned from his violin. Despite these being ridiculous ideas, it caused many problems for Paganini. For example, he was once attacked while walking down the street. Another issue that occurred was a prolonged burial once he had passed away. Because people still believed he was the human embodiment of the devil, they did not want him buried in a church cemetery. He was going to be buried but his grave was desecrated. For this reason, his burial was prolonged for weeks and held in secret. While Paganini played into his devious lifestyle and public image, rumors were the ultimate reason for his association with the devil and the problems that stemmed from it.
When Paganini began playing the violin, he performed with a newfound virtuosity that had never been seen before. One part of Paganini’s playing that was seen as vile was his choice in repertoire; he had composed and performed “Duetto Amoroso” for two violins, which was meant to portray the sighs and groans of two lovers. Despite using musical characteristics also used in sacred eroticism and secular opera, such as lines joining in unison and appoggiaturas as sighs, the public saw this work as inappropriate. Another worked that was criticized by the public was “Il Fandango Spanolo” by Roberto Molinelli, which imitated the sounds of animals. Music was seen high art, and by portraying the sounds of animals, it ruined the musicality and placed humans at the same level as animals. Although the 19th century was a time of breaking away from refined emotion and moving towards musical narrative, Paganini perhaps took this too far and as a result was not well received with these works.
One piece that showcased Paganini’s extreme virtuosity was “L’arte di nuova modulazione - Capricci enigmatici” by Pietro Locatelli. This work used extensive left hand pizzicato, which Paganini’s long, dexterous fingers could achieve with ease. These left hand pizzicati made it so he could switch between arco and pizzicato quicker than playing pizz in the right hand. Another effect featured in these pieces is the use of harmonics, specifically for timbrel effects. Although harmonics were already used in pieces, the haunting sounds added to Paganini’s already otherworldly perception. Lastly, the piece features sequential trills that emulate weeping, which links Paganini with musical despair and anguish. Paganini utilized timbrel effects and extended technique, creating dramatic and sometimes overwhelming performances.
Another aspect of Paganini’s unusual performance practice was scordatura, which is nontraditional tuning, similar to a guitar’s contemporary drop tuning. For example, instead of the violin being tuned G D A E (low to high), it could be tuned to F C G D. Although this technique was being utilized since the 17th century, Paganini used this to serve a different purpose; rather than making a piece easier to play, he experimented with timbres and aimed for a dark, haunting sound. Paganini was known for his unconventional performances, such as playing on a violin with severed strings and playing on a violin with only one string. Although there were already pieces that utilize one string, such as Bach’s “Air on the G String,” Paganini would only have one string and would slide between notes to further create an eerie timbre. He was the master of timbrel exploration, pushing the violin to new capabilities and expanding on previous techniques established.
Whether one views the violin as an angelic or demonic instrument, the religious connections can be traced throughout history through visual art, music, and modern social concepts. Paganini was a main reason the violin became linked to the devil, as he lived an impious lifestyle and exhibited greater virtuosity than all violinists prior. Paganini’s deformities, performance practice, skill level, and lifestyle choices, as well as society’s rumors that responded to him caused the violin to be connected to the devil during the early 19th century. Today, traces of the association between devils and violins can be found in visual and performing arts. For example, Michael Gray’s 2017 painting, The Devil’s Violin, and the Primus’s 1998 hit song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” feature devils playing bowed stringed instruments.