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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard


Title:     Paganini
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

For lo! creation's self is one great choir,
And what is Nature's order but the rhyme
Whereto the worlds keep time,
And all things move with all things from their prime?
Who shall expound the mystery of the lyre?
In far retreats of elemental mind
Obscurely comes and goes
The imperative breath of song, that as the wind
Is trackless, and oblivious whence it blows.

---William Watson

Some time ago, after my lecture one night in Boston, I bethought me to call on my old friend Bliss Carman. I expected he would be sleeping the sleep of the just, but I was prepared to rout him out, for although my errand was from a fair, frail young thing, and trivial, yet I was bound to deliver the message--for that is what one should always do.

But the poet was not abed--he was pacing the room in a fine burst of poetic fervor, composing "More Songs From Vagabondia." The songs told of purling streams, hedgerows, bathers lolling on the river-bank, nodding wild flowers, chirping pewees, and other such poetic properties, which the singer conjured forth from boyhood's days, long since gone by.

This suite of rooms, where the poet worked, was in a fine house on a fashionable street, and I noticed the place bore every mark of elegant bachelor ease and convenience that good taste could dictate. The best "Songs From Vagabondia," I am told, are written in comfortable apartments, where there are a bath and a Whitely Exerciser; but patient, persistent effort and work overtime are necessary to lick the lines into shape so they will live. Good poets run their machinery in double shifts.

"Go away!" cried Bliss Carman, when he had opened the door in reply to my sprightly knock. "Go away! I am giving to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. This is my busy night--do you not see?" And fully understanding the conditions, for I am a poet myself, I went away and left the author to his labors.

It is a mistake to assume that genius is the capacity for evading hard work. "La Vie de Boheme" is a beautiful myth that was first worked out with consummate labor by a man of imagination named Murger, and told again with variations by Balzac and Du Maurier. Boheme is not down on the map, because it is not a money-order post-office. It is only a Queen Mab fairy fabric of a warm, transient desire; its walls being constructed of the stuff that dreams are made of, and its little life is rounded with a pipe and tabor, two empties and a brass tray. Yet the semblance of the thing is there and this often deceives the very elect. Around every art studio are found the young men in velveteen who smoke infinite cigarettes, and throw off opinions about this great man and that, and prate prosaically in blase monotone of the Beautiful. Sometimes these young persons give lectures on "Art as I Have Found It"; but do not be deceived by this--the art that lives is probably being produced by small, shy, red-headed men who work on a top floor, and whom you can only find with the help of a search-warrant. One sort talks of art, the other kind produces it. One tells of truth, the other is living it.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote the most gruesome stories that have ever been told, just to prove that life is a tragedy and not worth living. But who ever lived fuller and applied himself to hard work more conscientiously in order to make his point? Poe wrote and rewrote, and changed and added and interlined and balanced it all on his actor's tongue, and read it aloud before the glass. Poe shortened his days and flung away a valuable fag-end of his life, trying to show that life is not worth living, and thus proved it is. Gray spent thirteen years writing his "Elegy," and so made clear the point that the man who does good work does not at the last lay him down and rest his head upon the lap of earth, a youth to fortune and to fame unknown. Gray secured both fame and fortune. He was so successful that he declined the Laureateship, and had the felicity to die of gout. Gray's immortality is based upon the fact that his life gave the lie to his logic. The man who thinks out what he wants to do, and then works and works hard, will win, and no others do, or ever have, or can--God will not have it so.

* * * * *

As a violinist Paganini far surpassed all other players who ever lived; and when one follows the story of his life, the fact is apparent that he succeeded because he worked.

And yet behold the paradox! The idea existed in his own day, and is abroad yet, that "the devil guided his hand," for the thought that the devil is more powerful than God has ever been held by the majority of men--more especially if a fiddle is concerned.

Such patience, such persistency, such painstaking effort as the man put forth for a score of years would have made him master at anything. The public knows nothing of these long years of labor and preparation--it sees only the result, and this result shows such consummate ease and naturalness--all done without effort--that it exclaims, "A genius--the devil guides his hand!" The remark was made of Titian and his wonderful color effects, and then again of Rembrandt with his mysterious limpid shadows--their competitors could not understand it! And so they disposed of the subject by attributing it to a supernatural agency.

Things all men can do and explain are natural; things we can not explain are "supernatural." Progress consists in taking things out of the supernatural pigeonhole and placing them in the natural. As soon as we comprehend the supernatural, we are a bit surprised to find it is perfectly natural.

But the limitations of great men are seen in that when they have acquired the skill to do a difficult thing well, and the public cries, "Genius!" why the genius humors the superstition and begins to allow the impression to get out mysteriously that he "never had a lesson in his life."

Any man who caters to the public is to a great degree spoiled by the public. Actors act off the stage as well as on, falling victims to their trade: their lives are stained by pretense and affectation, just as the dyer's hand is subdued to the medium in which it works. The man of talent who is much before the public poses because his audience wishes him to; one step more and the pose becomes natural--he can not divest himself of it. Paganini by hard work became a consummate player; and then so the dear public should receive its money's worth, he evolved into a consummate poseur--but he was still the Artist.

* * * * *

A large number of writers have described the appearance and playing of Niccolo Paganini, but none ever did the assignment with the creepy vividness of Heinrich Heine. The rest of this chapter is Heine's. I make the explanation because the passage is so well known that it would be both indiscreet and inexpedient for me to bring my literary jimmy to bear and claim it as my own--much as I would like to.

Says Heinrich Heine:

I believe that only one man has succeeded in putting Paganini's true physiognomy upon paper--a deaf painter, Lyser by name, who, in a frenzy full of genius, has with a few strokes of chalk so well hit the great violinist's head that one is at the same time amused and terrified at the truth of the drawing. "The devil guided my hand," the deaf painter said to me, chuckling mysteriously, and nodding his head with a good-natured irony in the way he generally accompanied his genial witticisms. This painter was, however, a wonderful old fellow; in spite of his deafness he was enthusiastically fond of music, and he knew how, when near enough to the orchestra, to read the music in the musicians' faces, and to judge the more or less skilful execution by the movements of their fingers; indeed, he wrote critiques on the opera for an excellent journal at Hamburg. And yet is that peculiarly wonderful? In the visible symbols of the performance the deaf painter could see the sounds. There are men to whom the sounds themselves are invisible symbols in which they hear colors and forms.

I am sorry that I no longer possess Lyser's little drawing; it would perhaps have given you an idea of Paganini's outward appearance. Only with black and glaring strokes could those mysterious features be seized, features which seemed to belong more to the sulphurous kingdom of shades than to the sunny world of life. "Indeed, the devil guided my hand," the deaf painter assured me, as we stood before the pavilion at Hamburg on the day when Paganini gave his first concert there. "Yes, my friend, it is true that he has sold himself to the devil, body and soul, in order to become the best violinist, to fiddle millions of money, and principally to escape the damnable galley where he had already languished many years. For, you see, my friend, when he was chapel-master at Lucca he fell in love with a princess of the theater, was jealous of some little abbate, was perhaps deceived by the faithless amata, stabbed her in approved Italian fashion, came in the galley to Genoa, and as I said, sold himself to the devil to escape from it, became the best violin-player, and imposed upon us this evening a contribution of two thalers each. But, you see, all good spirits praise God! There in the avenue he comes himself, with his suspicious impresario."

It was Paganini himself whom I then saw for the first time. He wore a dark gray overcoat, which reached to his heels, and made his figure seem very tall. His long black hair fell in neglected curls on his shoulders, and formed a dark frame round the pale, cadaverous face, on which sorrow, genius and hell had engraved their lines. Near him danced along a little pleasing figure, elegantly prosaic--with rosy, wrinkled face, bright gray little coat with steel buttons, distributing greetings on all sides in an insupportably friendly way, leering up, nevertheless, with apprehensive air at the gloomy figure who walked earnest and thoughtful at his side. It reminded one of Retzsch's presentation of "Faust" and Wagner walking before the gates of Leipzig. The deaf painter made comments to me in his mad way, and bade me observe especially the broad, measured walk of Paganini. "Does it not seem," said he, "as if he had the iron cross-pole still between his legs? He has accustomed himself to that walk forever. See, too, in what a contemptuous, ironical way he sometimes looks at his guide when the latter wearies him with his prosaic questions. But he can not separate himself from him; a bloody contract binds him to that companion, who is no other than Satan. The ignorant multitude, indeed, believe that this guide is the writer of comedies and anecdotes, Harris from Hanover, whom Paganini has taken with him to manage the financial business of his concerts. But they do not know that the devil has only borrowed Herr George Harris' form, and that meanwhile the poor soul of this poor man is shut up with other rubbish in a trunk at Hanover, until the devil returns its flesh-envelope, while he perhaps will guide his master through the world in a worthier form--namely as a black poodle."

But if Paganini seemed mysterious and strange enough when I saw him walking in bright midday under the green trees of the Hamburg Jungfernstieg, how his awful bizarre appearance startled me at the concert in the evening! The Hamburg Opera House was the scene of this concert, and the art-loving public had flocked there so early, and in such numbers, that I only just succeeded in obtaining a little place in the orchestra. Although it was post-day, I saw in the first row of boxes the whole educated commercial world, a whole Olympus of bankers and other millionaires, the gods of coffee and sugar by the side of their fat goddesses, Junos of Wandrahm and Aphrodites of Dreckwall. A religious silence reigned through the assembly. Every eye was directed towards the stage. Every ear was making ready to listen. My neighbor, an old furrier, took the dirty cotton out of his ears in order to drink in better the costly sounds for which he had paid his two thalers.

At last a dark figure, which seemed to have arisen from the underworld, appeared upon the stage. It was Paganini in his black costume--the black dress-coat and the black waistcoat of a horrible cut, such as is prescribed by infernal etiquette at the court of Proserpine. The black trousers hung anxiously around the thin legs. The long arms appeared to grow still longer, as, holding the violin in one hand and the bow in the other, he almost touched the floor with them, while displaying to the public his unprecedented obeisances. In the angular curves of his body there was a horrible woodenness, and also something absurdly animal-like, that during these bows one could not help feeling a strange desire to laugh. But his face, that appeared still more cadaverously pale in the glare of the orchestra lights, had about it something so imploring, so simply humble, that a sorrowful compassion repressed one's desire to smile. Had he learnt these complimentary bows from an automaton, or a dog? Is that the entreating gaze of one sick unto death, or is there lurking behind it the mockery of a crafty miser? Is that a man brought into the arena at the moment of death, like a dying gladiator, to delight the public with his convulsions? Or is it one risen from the dead, a vampire with a violin, who, if not the blood out of our hearts, at any rate sucks the gold out of our pockets?

Such questions crossed our minds while Paganini was performing his strange bows, but all those thoughts were at once still when the wonderful master placed his violin under his chin and began to play.

As for me, you already know my musical second-sight, my gift of seeing at each tone a figure equivalent to the sound, and so Paganini with each stroke of his bow brought visible forms and situations before my eyes; he told me in melodious hieroglyphics all kinds of brilliant tales; he, as it were, made a magic lantern play its colored antics before me, he himself being chief actor. At the first stroke of his bow the stage scenery around him had changed; he suddenly stood with his music-desk in a cheerful room, decorated in a gay, irregular way after the Pompadour style; everywhere little mirrors, gilded Cupids, Chinese porcelain, a delightful chaos of ribbons, garlands of flowers, white gloves, torn lace, false pearls, powder-puffs, diamonds of gold-leaf and spangles--such tinsel as one finds in the room of a prima donna. Paganini's outward appearance had also changed, and certainly most advantageously; he wore short breeches of lily-colored satin, a white waistcoat embroidered with silver, and a coat of bright blue velvet with gold buttons; the hair in little carefully curled locks bordered his face, which was young and rosy, and gleamed with sweet tenderness as he ogled the pretty young lady who stood near him at the music-desk, while he played the violin.

Yes, I saw at his side a pretty young creature, dressed in antique costume, the white satin swelled out above the waist, making the figure still more charmingly slender; the high raised hair was powdered and curled, and the pretty round face shone out all the more openly with its glancing eyes, its little rouged cheeks, its tiny beauty-patches, and the sweet, impertinent little nose. In her hand was a roll of white paper, and by the movements of her lips as well as by the coquettish waving to and fro of her little upper lip she seemed to be singing; but none of her trills was audible to me, and only from the violin with which young Paganini led the lovely child could I discover what she sang, and what he himself during her song felt in his soul.

Oh, what melodies were those! Like the nightingale's notes, when the fragrance of the rose intoxicates her yearning young heart with desire, they floated in the twilight. Oh, what melting, languid delight was that! The sounds kissed each other, then fled away pouting, and then, laughing, clasped each other and became one, and died away in intoxicating harmony. Yes, the sounds carried on their merry game like butterflies, when one, in playful provocation, will escape from another, hide behind a flower, be overtaken at last, and then, wantonly joying with the other, fly away into the golden sunlight. But a spider, a spider can prepare a sudden tragical fate for such enamored butterflies!

Did the young heart anticipate this? A melancholy sighing tone, a sad foreboding of some slowly approaching misfortune, glided softly through the enrapturing melodies that were streaming from Paganini's violin. His eyes became moist. Adoringly he knelt down before his amata. But, alas! as he bowed down to kiss her feet, he saw under the sofa a little abbate! I do not know what he had against the poor man, but the Genoese became pale as death. He seized the little fellow with furious hands, drew a stiletto from its sheath, and buried it in the young rogue's breast.

At this moment, however, a shout of "Bravo! Bravo!" broke out from all sides. Hamburg's enthusiastic sons and daughters were paying the tribute of their uproarious applause to the great artist, who had just ended the first of his concert, and was now bowing with even more angles and contortions than before. And on his face the abject humility seems to me to have become more intense. From his eyes stared a sorrowful anxiety like that of a poor malefactor. "Divine!" cried my neighbor, the furrier, as he scratched his ears; "that piece alone was worth two thalers."

When Paganini began to play again a gloom came before my eyes. The sounds were not transformed into bright forms and colors; the master's form was clothed in gloomy shades, out of the darkness of which his music moaned in the most piercing tones of lamentation.

Only at times, when a little lamp that hung above cast its sorrowful light over him, could I catch a glimpse of his pale countenance, on which the youth was not yet extinguished. His costume was singular, in two colors, yellow and red. Heavy chains weighed upon his feet. Behind him moved a face whose physiognomy indicated a lusty goat-nature. And I saw at times long, hairy hands seize assistingly the strings of the violin on which Paganini was playing. They often guided the hand which held the bow, and then a bleat-laugh of applause accompanied the melody, which gushed from the violin ever more full of sorrow and anguish. They were melodies which were like the song of the fallen angels who had loved the daughters of earth, and being exiled from the kingdom of the blessed, sank into the underworld with faces red with shame. They were melodies in whose bottomless depths glimmered neither consolation nor hope. When the saints in heaven hear such melodies, the praise of God dies upon their paled lips, and they cover their heads weeping. At times when the obligate goat's laugh bleated in among the melodious pangs, I caught a glimpse in the background of a crowd of small women-figures who nodded their odious heads with wicked wantonness. Then a rush of agonizing sounds came from the violin, and a fearful groan and a sob, such as was never heard upon earth before, nor will be perhaps heard upon earth again, unless in the valley of Jehoshaphat, when the colossal trumpets of doom shall ring out, and the naked corpses shall crawl forth from the grave to abide their fate. But the agonized violinist suddenly made one stroke of the bow, such a mad, despairing stroke, that his chains fell rattling from him, and his mysterious assistant and the other foul, mocking forms vanished.

At this moment my neighbor, the furrier, said, "A pity, a pity! a string has snapped--that comes from constant pizzicato."

Had a string of the violin really snapped? I do not know. I only observed the alternation in the sounds, and Paganini and his surroundings seemed to me again suddenly changed. I could scarcely recognize him in the monk's brown dress, which concealed rather than clothed him. With savage countenance half-hid by the cowl, waist girt with a cord, and bare feet, Paganini stood, a solitary defiant figure, on a rocky prominence by the sea, and played his violin. But the sea became red and redder, and the sky grew paler, till at last the surging water looked like bright, scarlet blood, and the sky above became of a ghastly corpse-like pallor, and the stars came out large and threatening; and those stars were black--black as glooming coal. But the tones of the violin grew ever more stormy and defiant, and the eyes of the terrible player sparkled with such a scornful lust of destruction, and his thin lips moved with such a horrible haste, that it seemed as if he murmured some old accursed charms to conjure the storm and loose the evil spirits that lie imprisoned in the abysses of the sea. Often, when he stretched his long, thin arm from the broad monk's sleeve, and swept the air with his bow, he seemed like some sorcerer who commands the elements with his magic wand; and then there was a wild wailing from the depth of the sea, and the horrible waves of blood sprang up so fiercely that they almost besprinkled the pale sky and the black stars with their red foam. There was a wailing and a shrieking and a crashing, as if the world was falling into fragments, and ever more stubbornly the monk played his violin. He seemed as if by the power of violent will he wished to break the seven seals wherewith Solomon sealed the iron vessels in which he had shut up the vanquished demons. The wise king sank those vessels in the sea and I seemed to hear the voices of the imprisoned spirits while Paganini's violin growled its most wrathful bass.

But at last I thought I heard the jubilee of deliverance, and out of the red billows of blood emerged the heads of the fettered demons: monsters of legendary horror, crocodiles with bats' wings, snakes with stags' horns, monkeys with shells on their heads, seals with long patriarchal beards, women's faces with one eye, green camels' heads, all staring with cold, crafty eyes, and long, fin-like claws grasping at the fiddling monk. From the latter, however, in the furious zeal of his conjuration, the cowl fell back and the curly hair, fluttering in the wind, fell round his head in ringlets, like black snakes.

So maddening was this vision that to keep my senses I closed my ears and shut my eyes. When I again looked up the specter had vanished, and I saw the poor Genoese in his ordinary form, making his ordinary bows, while the public applauded in the most rapturous manner.

"That is the famous performance upon G," remarked my neighbor. "I myself play the violin, and I know what it is to master the instrument." Fortunately, the pause was not considerable, or else the musical furrier would certainly have engaged me in a long conversation upon art. Paganini again quietly set his violin to his chin, and with the first stroke of his bow the wonderful transformation of melodies again began.

They no longer fashioned themselves so brightly and corporeally. The melody gently developed itself, majestically billowing and swelling like an organ chorale in a cathedral, and everything around, stretching larger and higher, had extended into a colossal space which, not the bodily eye, but only the eye of the spirit could seize. In the midst of this space hovered a shining sphere, upon which, gigantic and sublimely haughty, stood a man who played the violin. Was that sphere the sun? I do not know. But in the man's features I recognized Paganini, only ideally lovely, divinely glorious, with a reconciling smile. His body was in the bloom of powerful manhood, a bright blue garment enclosed his noble limbs, his shoulders were covered by gleaming locks of black hair; and as he stood there, sure and secure, a sublime divinity, and played the violin, it seemed as if the whole creation obeyed his melodies. He was the man-planet about which the universe moved with measured solemnity and ringing out beatific rhythms. Those great lights, which so quietly gleaming swept around, were they stars of heaven, and that melodious harmony which arose from their movements, was it the song of the spheres, of which poets and seers have reported so many ravishing things? At times, when I endeavored to gaze out into the misty distance, I thought I saw pure white garments floating ground, in which colossal pilgrims passed muffled along with white staves in their hands, and singular to relate, the golden knob of each staff was even one of those great lights which I had taken for stars. These pilgrims moved in a large orbit around the great performer, the golden knobs of their staves shone even brighter at the tones of the violin, and the chorale which resounded from their lips, and which I had taken for the song of the spheres, was only the dying echo of those violin tones. A holy, ineffable ardor dwelt in those sounds, which often trembled scarce audibly, in mysterious whisper on the water, then swelled out again with a shuddering sweetness, like a bugle's notes heard by moonlight, and then finally poured forth in unrestrained jubilee, as if a thousand bards had struck their harps and raised their voices in a song of victory.

* * * * *

In Seventeen Hundred Eighty-four, Niccolo Paganini was born at Genoa. His father was a street-porter who eked out the scanty exchequer by playing a violin at occasional dances or concerts. That his playing was indifferent is evident from the fact that he was very poor--his services were not in demand.

The poverty of the family and the failure of the father fired the ambition of the boy to do something worthy. When he was ten years old he could play as well as his father, and a year or so thereafter could play better. The lad was tall, slender, delicate and dreamy-eyed. But he had will plus, and his desire was to sound the possibilities of the violin. And this reminds me that Hugh Pentecost says there is no such thing as will--it is all desire: when we desire a thing strongly enough, we have the will to secure it--but no matter!

Young Niccolo Paganini practised on his father's violin for six hours a day; and now when the customers who used to hire his father to play came, they would say, "We just as lief have Niccolo."

Soon after this they said, "We prefer to have Niccolo." And a little later they said, "We must have Niccolo." Some one has written a book to show that playing second fiddle is just as worthy an office as playing first. This doubtless is true, but there are so many more men who can play second, that it behooves every player to relieve the stress by playing first if he can. Niccolo played first and then was called upon to play solos. He was making twice as much money as his father ever had, but the father took all the boy's earnings, as was his legal right. The father's pride in the success of the son, the young man always said, was because he was proving a good financial investment. It does not always pay to raise children--this time it did. It was finally decided to take the boy to the celebrated musician, Rolla, for advice as to what was best to do about his education. Rolla was sick abed at the time the boy called and could not see him; but while waiting in the entry the lad took up a violin and began to play. The invalid raised himself on one elbow and pantingly inquired who the great master was that had thus favored him with a visit.

"It's the lad who wants you to give him lessons," answered the attendant.

"Impossible! no lad could play like that--I can teach that player nothing!"

Next the musician Paer was visited, and he passed the boy along to Giretta, who gave him three lessons a week in harmony and counterpoint. The boy had abrupt mannerisms and tricks of his own in bringing out expressions, and these were such a puzzle to the teacher that he soon refused to go on.

Niccolo possessed a sort of haughty self-confidence that aggravated the master; he believed in himself and was fond of showing that he could play in a way no one else could. Adolescence had turned his desire to play into a fury of passion for his art: he practised on single passages for ten or twelve hours a day, and would often sink in a swoon from sheer exhaustion. This deep, torpor-like sleep saved him from complete collapse, just as it saved Mendelssohn, and he would arise to go on with his work.

Paganini's wisdom was shown at this early age in that he limited his work to a few compositions, and these he made the most of, just as they say Bossuet secured his reputation as the greatest preacher of his time by a single sermon that he had polished to the point of perfection.

When fifteen years old Paganini contrived to escape from his father and went to a musical festival at Lucca. He managed to get a hearing, was engaged at once as a soloist, and soon after gave a concert on his own account. In a month he had accumulated a thousand pounds in cash.

Very naturally, such a success turned the head of this lad who never before had had the handling of money. He began to gamble, and became the dupe of rogues--male and female--who plunged him into an abyss of wrong. He even gambled away the "Stradivarius" that had been presented to him, and when his money, watch and jewels were gone, his new-found friends of course decamped, and this gave the young man time to ponder on the vanities of life.

When he played again it was on a borrowed "Guarnerius," and after the rich owner, himself a violinist, had heard him play, he said, "No fingers but yours shall ever play that violin again!"

Paganini accepted the gift, and this was the violin he played for full forty years, and which, on his death, was willed to his native city of Genoa. There it can be seen in its sealed-up glass case.

Up to his thirtieth year Paganini continued his severe work of subduing the violin. By that time he had sounded its possibilities, and thereafter no one heard him play except in concert. It is told that one man, anxious to know the secrets of Paganini's power, followed him from city to city, watching him at his concerts, dogging him through the streets, spying upon him at hotels. At one inn this man of curiosity had the felicity to secure a room next to the one occupied by Paganini; and one morning as he watched through the keyhole, he was rewarded by seeing the master open the case where reposed the precious "Guarnerius." Paganini lifted the instrument, held it under his chin, took up the bow and made a few passes in the air--not a sound was heard. Then he kissed the back of the violin, muttered a prayer, and locked the instrument in its case.

At concert rehearsals he always played a mute instrument; and Harris, his manager, records that for the many years he was with Paganini he never heard him play a single note except before an audience.

I have a full-length daguerreotype of Paganini taken when he was forty years of age. No one ever asked this man, "Kind sir, are you anybody in particular?"

Paganini was tall and wofully slim. His hands and feet were large and bony, his arms long, his form bowed and lacking in all that we call symmetry. But the long face with its look of abject melancholy, the curved nose, the thin lips and the sharp, protruding chin, made a combination that Fate has never duplicated. You could easily believe that this man knew all the secrets of the Nether World, and had tasted the joys of Paradise as well. Women pitied and loved him, men feared him, and none understood him. He lived in the midst of throngs and multitudes--the loneliest man known in the history of art.

Paganini, when he had reached his height, played only his own music; he played divinely and incomprehensibly; next to his passion for music was his greed for gold. These three facts sum up all we really know about the master--the rest fades off into mist--mystery, fable and legend. We do know, however, that he composed several pieces of music so difficult that he could not play them himself, and of course no one else can. Imagination can always outrun performance. Paganini had no close friends; no confidants: he never mingled in society, and he never married.

At times he would disappear from the public gaze for several months, and not even his business associates knew where he was. On one such occasion a traveler discovered him in a monastic retreat in the Swiss Mountains, wearing a horsehair robe and a rope girdle; others saw him disguised as a mendicant; and still another tells of finding him working as a day-laborer with obscure and ignorant peasants. Then there are tales told of how he was taken captive by a titled lady of great wealth and beauty, who carried him away to her bower, where he eschewed the violin and tinkled only the guitar the livelong day.

Everywhere the report was current that Paganini had killed a man, and been sentenced to prison for life. The story ran that in prison he found an old violin, three strings of which were broken, and so he played on one string, producing such ravishing music that the keepers feared he was "possessed." They decided they must get rid of him, and so contrived to have him thrown overboard from a galley; but he swam ashore, and although he was everywhere known, no man dared place a hand on him.

A late writer in a London magazine, however, has given evidence of being a psychologist and man of sense; he says, and produces proof, that after the concert season was over Paganini withdrew to a monastery in the mountains of Switzerland, and there the monks who loved him well, guarded his retreat. There he found the rest for which his soul craved, and there he practised on his violin hour after hour, day after day. All this is better understood when we remember that after each retreat, Paganini appeared with brand-new effects which electrified his hearers--"effects taught him by the devil."

Constant appearing before vast multitudes and ceaseless travel create a depletion that demands rest. Paganini held the balance true by fleeing to the mountains; there he worked and prayed. That Paganini had a soft heart, in spite of the silent, cold and melancholy mood that usually possessed him, is shown in his treatment of his father and mother, who lived to know the greatness of their son. He wrote his mother kind and affectionate letters, some of which we have, and provided lavishly for every want of both his parents. At times he gave concerts for charity, and on these occasions vast sums were realized.

Paganini died in Eighteen Hundred Forty, aged fifty-six years. His will provided for legacies to various men and women who had befriended him, and he also gave to others with whom he had quarreled, thus proving he was not all clay.

The bulk of his fortune, equal to half a million dollars, was bequeathed to his son, Baron Achille Paganini. And as if mystery should still enshroud his memory and this, true to his nature, should be carried out in his last will, there are those who maintain that Achille Paganini was not his son at all--only a waif he had adopted. Yet Achille always stoutly maintained the distinction--but what boots it, since he could not play his father's violin?

Yet this we know--Paganini, the man of mystery and moods, once lived and produced music that, Orpheus-like, transfixed the world. We are better for his having been and this world is a nobler place in that he lived and played, for listen closely and you can hear, even now, the sweet, sad echoes of those vibrant strings, touched by the hand of him who loved them well.

And when we remember the prodigious amount of practise that Paganini schooled himself to in youth; and join this to the recently discovered record of his long monastic retreats, when for months he worked and played and prayed, we can guess the secret of his power. If you wish me to present you a recipe for doing a deathless performance, I would give you this: Work, travel, solitude, prayer, and yet again--work.

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Paganini