Described as demonic and as a magician (Kawabata 2007), Niccolo Paganini’s reputation, virtuosity, and the rumors surrounding his life shaped the way generations of audiences listened and perceived his playing and compositions.
Paganini’s establishment of a reputation as a travelling virtuoso was marked by the social context of the time and the musical developments he created. His reputation, which was shrouded in an air of mystery and unparalleled virtuosity, helped Paganini market himself to the public and become a legend in the history (Taruskin 2005). A virtuoso, as described and defined during the lifetime of Paganini (1782 – 1840), is one of romantic virtuosity which has been described as having a ‘transcendental’ aspect to it (Karmer 1990, p. 89). The origin of the travelling virtuoso has been debated, but the definition of a virtuoso comes from the Italian use of the word which gives some insight on the subject. The word is first defined and described in 1703 in association to ‘…excellent musicians, notably to those among the latter devote themselves to the theory or to the composition of music rather than to those who excel in the other arts…’ (de Brossard 1703, cited in Pincherle 1949, p. 227).
This definition can be taken with the added ‘transcendental’ aspect of virtuosity during the Romantic era which drove the virtuoso musician to create compositions of ‘superhuman difficulty’ to describe the travelling virtuosos of the nineteenth century (Karmer 1990, p. 89).Dahlhuas suggests in his book that a music historian should look into reconstructing the conditions under which a virtuoso, like Paganini, had their skills become a part of ‘music as art’ rather than discussing the ‘his semiobscure origins’ (1989, p. 134). Looking into the social context of Paganini’s lifetime and the changes of the time, these influences aided in his rise to virtuosity. The availability of music to the public during the early nineteenth century became more accessible to the people (Taruskin 2005).
Thanks to improved technologies, transportation was easier and allowed more opportunities for travel. This allowed travel between major cities to be easier for the virtuosos of the time ().Another influence can be attributed to the ‘democratization of taste’ (Taruskin 2005, p.
251). Although the opinions of the democratization were varied in the different social classes, it also resulted with a competitiveness between the ticket-buying public and the patronage, which had been prevalent earlier. This meant that musicians no longer had to rely on the patrons to earn money and were able to lure the ticket-buying public with their musical skills. This led to the rise of travelling virtuoso of the nineteenth century (Taruskin 2005).
The violin virtuoso rise correlates with compositional features such as form and the ‘monodic cantabile’ which had been used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as the improvement of the instrument. Both the form and the monody used gave the virtuosos the liberty to add improvisations (Dahlhaus 1989, p. 134).
The ticket-buying public could choose to attend concerts based on reputations of these artists (Taruskin 2005).