The Dancing Devil
Paganini and Me

This is the backstory. I write and teach online. I get up early every day, walk around the lake with Ginger, have breakfast, and then go to my office in my home. I turn on my computer to work, but, first, I need to turn on some quiet classical background music. Why? I have no idea. Well, to be honest, maybe I need it to settle my ADD racing around my mind. Träumerei, Moonlight Sonata, Pictures at an Exhibition, Für Elise, Sonata Pathetique, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, etc. are some of the music that calms the savage beast dancing in my brain. Those classical pieces act like Ritalin.

A couple of weeks ago, I was writing about something and stopped. The background music was somewhere in the middle of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. I am probably the most driven, but totally a novice, when it comes to all kinds of music. I don’t play any instrument, I can’t sing, but I am obsessed with music...especially classical compositions when I am trying to concentrate. My knowledge base of Rachmaninoff is very limited even though I love his works. I knew that he wrote that piece in the summer of 1934 and by the end of that year he recorded it. You might be wondering how I came to know that insignificant musical fact. Actually, I know where it was recorded. Do you?

Rachmaninoff conducted Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in Camden, NJ at the RCA Victor's Trinity Church Studio about a decade before I was born. At that time, my family lived in Merchantville, NJ, which is a small town just outside of Camden.

The Trinity Church Studio

As for the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, I didn’t know who Paganini was. So, off I went to the Internet. The following data is what I discovered. Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy on October 27, 1782. He was one of the best-known violinists of all time and was a quick learner. He started with the mandolin and mastered it by five. Two years later, he did the same with the violin. Paganini’s first performance was for the locals in Genoa when he was eleven and went on his first tour by fifteen.

Paganini mesmerized his listeners. Some aficionados believed that his mother sold Paganini’s soul to the Devil due to his ability to play the violin. Others thought Paganini was the Devil incarnate. Some claimed that while performing in Vienna that the Devil was assisting him. Others asserted the Devil made lightning strike in the midst of his playing. Any of those beliefs or rumors seem a bit beyond the pale.


Nonetheless, the rumors got worse about Paganini. Some believed that he murdered a woman so as to acquire her intestines for strings for his violin. People claimed that, as he played, you could hear the woman scream.

Do you hear anyone screaming?

Paganini had the ability to memorize everything that he played during a concert, which allowed him to play more quickly without having to turn the pages of sheet music. He was able to play twelve notes per second, which seems like a lot of notes in one second.

Additionally, Paganini suffered from Marfan syndrome. In reality, it was to his advantage. People with Marfan syndrome have very long and thin fingers, which allowed him to play three octaves at one time. Another medical issue was Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which allowed him to move his hands and arms with much more flexibility.

Sadly, Paganini’s problems got worse. He picked up syphilis and was given mercury, which was believed to cure that venereal disease. A dozen years later, he got tuberculosis, which ended his career as a performer. He resorted to teaching the violin but died when he was 54. For the next handful of years, his body was moved to various places like a house to keep lepers, an olive factory, and someone’s home. The Catholic Church wouldn’t bury him due to him rejecting his last rites. Finally, Pope Gregory XVI okayed allowing his corpse to be buried in a cemetery in Parma, Italy.

After all this research, I haven’t discovered why Rachmaninoff composed Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. The entire composition is just over twenty-two minutes long, which seems like something Paganini would like to have played. However, the part that I love, which soothes the Devil dancing in my brain, is a short three-minute section called Variation 18, Andante cantabile.

This is Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43