Had Paganini sold his soul to the devil? Or was he actually the son of the devil? Unbelievable as it may seem, these questions were actually being debated in the Viennese press in 1828, when Paganini came to visit the Austrian imperial city. The rumours about Paganini's diabolical origins were so persistent that the violinist's mother had to write an open letter to the Viennese newspapers to deny them. Or rather, her son had to write the letter for her, because she was by all accounts illiterate.
Why did Paganini have to defend himself against such unlikely charges? By the late 1820s, his reputation as the world's greatest violin virtuoso had spread beyond his native Italy, and audiences watched with utter disbelief as he performed feats on the instrument that no one had previously thought possible. His facility in executing rapid scale passages in double stops and the brilliance of his harmonics mystified even the best professional violinists. His very appearance (a tall, thin man with long hair, curly side-whiskers, a pale countenance and an aquiline nose) struck many contemporaries as rather eerie.
Yet Paganini's critics invariably stressed the fact that the artist transcended mere showmanship and possessed great emotional depth in his playing. This is evident in the slow movement of the Concerto in b minor, a heartfelt song of great lyrical power, said to have been inspired by a famous Italian actor playing the role of a prisoner lamenting the loss of his freedom. That intense prayer is framed by two movements filled with the most astonishing instrumental fireworks, with “La Campanella” (“The Bells”) as the spectacular finale. This arrangement of a popular Neapolitan song inspired the celebrated piano etude by Franz Liszt, who transferred Paganini's virtuosity to his own instrument.