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The Artist, the Hero and the Melancholy: A Life of Paganini


The composer reflects the very heroism of an era.

In Problem XXX, usually attributed to Aristotle, the philosopher asks why it seems that all exceptional people are also melancholics. Artists, poets, heroes, political leaders, thinkers: all of them, according to the Stagirite, seem affected by an excess of “black bile” which makes them admirable but also taciturn. They’re able to perform great works, and yet they’re doubtful, capable of inspiring others, but equally fond of loneliness and isolation.

The philosopher’s question has persisted throughout history. This is not so much because one wants an answer, but because such personalities continue to arouse both admiration and amazement. Today, just like hundreds of years ago, we peek into the lives of people who seem exceptional, in the same areas that Aristotle pointed out, and we can distinguish these same signs, even as constants.

Genius, it’s been said, is less the result of chance than of constancy. It might be better to say that it’s the result of a peculiar combination of both, though not an entirely balanced combination. The case of Niccolò Paganini is a good example of this. He’s said to have had a severe father, a merchant who was nevertheless better with the mandolin than with accounting ledgers. It was thanks to his musical instrument that he could cover the expenses of his house and family.

It was also the beginning of Paganini’s relationship with music, as from his father he learned to play the mandolin and, by the time he was seven years old, he began to learn the violin. The story has it that Antonio Paganini was especially strict in his son’s training as a musician. Anecdotally then, we can explain both the discipline Niccolò needed to become a virtuoso admired by his contemporaries and, on the other hand, his addiction to gambling and to debt.  It’s that other side of the coin present so often in the lives of artists. The remarkable ability to concentrate which develops in creative people, their disdain for anything related to their work, and their dedication of resources (time, physical effort, and material goods, etc.) are often accompanied, on the other hand, by an inclination toward some kind of excess, as if all the discipline needs to be followed by relaxation or a frank dissipation of the senses.

But there’s also an interesting triangulation between Paganini, Hector Berlioz and Lord Byron. The meeting point between these three characters is both anecdotal and casual, but for a moment we might imagine a secret logic that attracted each to the others. After listening to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, in December of 1833, Paganini sought out the composer to request an orchestral piece in which the viola played the leading role. The piece was not to be as happens in a concert, but rather a piece in which none of the other instruments drew the listeners’ attention. Each would then shine in its own light and even contribute to the brilliance of the other.

Berlioz felt honored and accepted the commission from the violinist, and then began to sketch a composition. According to his memoir, from the very beginning he had in mind a composition constructed as a succession of narrative scenes (in each of which the viola was like a character), inspired by Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a poem published between 1812 and 1818 by Lord Byron. In the poem, a young man tells of his travels and his adventures with a certain disappointment before the broken promises of the revolutionary era. In composing, Berlioz recalled his own wanderings in Abruzzo, Italy, but also the melancholy of the poetic hero of Byron, whose voice he wanted to convey in the piece. The work was finally presented under the title of Harold in Italy.

Beyond all the anecdote and the biographical details that can be seen in Paganini’s life, this final coincidence brings us back to melancholy, and also to heroism. Sometimes it seems that artists and creative people in general need a certain dose of melancholy to dress up their art. But perhaps the heroic life entails a certain solitude as well. While on his way, the hero finds accomplices and allies, many of the decisions that need to be made concern only the hero. Perhaps here we can find the origin of that melancholy associated usually with “exceptional people.”

And it’s thus that the artist is, at heart, a hero who decides to listen to the entirety of life’s call.




Image: Wanderer above the sea of fog, Caspar David Friedrich. Public Domain.

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