Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was more than a violin virtuoso; he was one of the best violinists of all time. By the time he was in his 20s, he was known throughout Europe. His command of the violin was so complete, in fact, that rumors quickly spread that such ability was not humanly possible and that Paganini was not, in fact, human. His great abilities could only come, many insisted, as a result of being the son of the devil himself.
These were more than just idle rumors. They gained more and more traction and became so well believed that music lovers began to avoid Paganini’s concerts out of fear of coming into contact with evil.
To dispel these rumors, Paganini was forced to present evidence that he was an ordinary human. To do this he published in a Prague newspaper a copy of a letter his mother wrote to him on July 21, 1828. Her loving, motherly words dispelled any notion that his origin was anything other than normal. (Stratton, Stephen Samuel. Nicolo Paganini: His Life and Work. London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907. Print., page 40.)
While the demonic explanation was discounted, it would take nearly 150 years to reach a scientific explanation for Paganini’s greatness. Scientists now believe the violinist had a rare genetic condition known as Marfan Syndrome. Marfan Syndrome causes the connective tissue of a person to stretch, making the limbs and fingers unusually thin and long — perfect for a violinist. It also causes the hands to be more flexible. Paganini’s doctor wrote, “Paganini’s hand is not larger than normal; but because all its parts are so stretchable, it can double its reach. For example, without changing the position of the hand, he is able to bend the first joints of the left fingers –which touch the strings–sideways, at a right angle to the natural motion of the joint, and he can do it with effortless ease, assurance, and speed. Essentially, Paganini’s art is based on physical endowment, increased and developed by ceaseless practicing.”
One story illustrates the astounding ability of Paganini’s hands. One night, a rich gentleman asked the virtuoso to serenade his lady friend. The air was quite damp, and the violin strings of the day did not respond well to this kind of humidity. First, the “E” string broke. The violinist was not fazed. Then the “A” and “D” strings snapped. The older gentleman was instantly worried and feared that the serenade for his friend would be ruined. What did Paganini do, now that he only had one string to play on? He simply smiled and continued to play on one string just as if he was playing on all four. The serenade was a success, after all, thanks to the virtuoso’s amazing ability.