Wednesday, August 31, 2011


A little over a century ago, Niccolo Paganini’s violin was enchanting many an audience in Europe. Paganini was a recognized virtuoso, and his Guarnerius thrilled music lovers with the grandeur of its clarion notes. But the musician was a gaunt, emaciated figure with waxen face and long black hair, and his clumsy movements frequently provoked unrestrained mirth.

During one of his scheduled concerts it seemed that all the evil fates were conspiring against him. He came limping on the platform because of a nail he had run into his heel. As he was tuning his violin both candles fell out of the music box, and the audience tittered. After he had played only a few bars one of the strings broke, and the throng laughed. When a second string broke, the laughter became more audible. But when a third string snapped and Paganini continued to draw divine music out of the single remaining string, the audience fell into a deep silence and looked on in consternation.

They completely forgot his clumsiness and the mishaps that might have wrecked a less gifted musician. They realized that genius was revealing itself before them. It was he who had introduced the double harmony and the left-handed pizzicato (played by plucking the strings with the finger instead of using the bow), and to hear him induce delicate harmonies out of a violin with broken strings was a revealing and memorable experience.

What was the secret of Paganini’s determination to finish his solo? How did his song continue despite the broken strings? The answer is quite apparent: he made full use of the one string that remained unbroken.

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