A Portrait of Paganini

(from "Florentine Nights")

By Heinrich Heine


"...How odd! At the same time, the death of Paganini was reported. I did not for a moment doubt this death notice, for the old and sallow Paganini always looked like a man on his deathbed; while the death of the youthful, rosy Bellini struck me as unbelievable. And yet the reports of the death of the former were only a press error, Paganini was found to be hale and hearty in Genoa, and Bellini lies in a grave in Paris!"
           "Do you love Paganini?" asked Maria.
           "This man," answered Maximilian, "is a jewel of his fatherland and has certainly earned the most honorable mention whenever one wishes to speak of the noteworthy musical figures of Italy."
           "I have never seen him," remarked Maria, "but from his reputation, his external appearance should not entirely satisfy one's aesthetic sense. I have seen portraits of him..."
           "That are not all similar," broke in Maximilian; "they uglify or beautify him, and never convey his real character. I believe that only one single person has succeeded in bringing the true physiognomy of Paganini to paper; he is a deaf painter, by the name of Lyser, who, in his spirited madness, captured the head of Paganini so well with a few chalk-marks, that one is simultaneously amused and frightened by the likeness. 'The devil guided my hand,' said the deaf painter, mysteriously snickering and nodding his head with good-natured irony, as he was fond of doing along with his genial pranks. This painter was always a quaint old codger; despite his deafness, he enthusiastically loved music, and is said to have understood it, when he was seated close enough to the orchestra to read the music on the faces of the musicians, and to judge the greater or lesser success of the execution of their finger movements; he also wrote the opera criticism in a cherished journal in Hamburg. What is actually astonishing in that? In the visible signature of the performance, the deaf painter could see the tones. There are in fact people to whom the tones themselves are just invisible signatures, wherein they hear colors and shapes."
           "You are such a person!" cried Maria.
           "I'm sorry that I no longer possess Lyser's little drawing; it would perhaps give you an idea of Paganini's appearance. Only in luridly black, sketchy strokes can his fabulous traits be captured, that appear to belong more to the sulfurous realm of shadows than to the sunny world of the living. 'Truthfully, the devil guided my hand,' the deaf painter assured me, as we stood before the Alster pavilion in Hamburg, on the day when Paganini gave his first concert there. 'Yes, my friend,' he continued, 'it is true what the entire world asserts, that he dedicated himself to the devil, body and soul, to become the best violinist, to fiddle for millions, to break out for the first time from the damned galleys where he had languished for so many years. Because look, friend, when he was the Kapellmeister at Lucca, he fell for a theatre princess, became jealous of some little Abate, became perhaps a cuckold, stabbed, in good Italian, his unfaithful Amata, hit the galley in Genoa and, like I said, devoted himself finally to the devil, to get loose, to become the best violin player and to become able to assess a plunder of two talers from the both of us this evening... But, look! All good spirits praise God! Look, there on the avenue comes he himself with his ambiguous famulus!' In fact, it was Paganini himself that I caught sight of at once. He wore a dark-grey overcoat that reached all the way to his feet, through which his form appeared to be very tall. The long black hair fell in disheveled locks upon his shoulders and formed a dark frame around the pale, cadaverous face, upon which grief, genius and Hell had engraved their indelible marks. Next to him pranced a lowly, carefree figure, drolly prosaic: rosy crinkled face, a little bright-grey coat with steel buttons, greeting all comers in an insufferably friendly manner, full of apprehensive timidity, squinting up at the sepulchral figure that seriously and pensively strolled by his side. One believed one was seeing the picture by Retzsch, where Faust strolls with Wagner before the gates of Leipzig. The deaf painter commented to me upon both figures in his wacky fashion, and made me especially attentive to the broad, measured gait of Paganini. 'Is is not,' he said, 'as if he always carries an iron crossbar between his legs? He has always taken to that gait. See as well how scornfully ironic his gaze often is upon his attendant, when this one becomes bothersome to him with his prosaic figure; but he cannot do without him, a blood contract binds him to this manservant, who is none other than Satan. Unknowing folks perhaps are of the view that this attendant were the writer of comedies and anecdotes, Harrys from Hanover, that Paganini has brought along on his journeys to manage his money transactions. Such folks don't know that the devil has merely borrowed the form of George Harrys, and that the poor soul of this poor person is among those sorts of riff-raff that are sitting locked up in a trunk in Hannover, until the devil gives them back their envelope of flesh, and perhaps accompanies his Master Paganini through the world in a more worthy form, like maybe a black poodle.'
           But if Paganini already appeared sufficiently fabulous and adventurous to me, as I saw him walking about in broad daylight under the green trees of the Hamburg Jungfernstieg [the promenade in the center of the city], how must his gauntly bizarre appearance that evening in concert have surprised me. The Hamburg Theater was the venue for this concert, and the arts-loving public had already assembled itself early and in such numbers, that I could scarcely battle a little spot for myself in the orchestra. Even though it was mail day, yet I caught sight of the entire cultivated business world, the highest masonic rank, a whole Olympus of bankers and miscellaneous millionaires, the gods of coffee and sugar, beside their fat conjugal goddesses, Junos from Wandrahm and Aphrodites from Dreckwall. Also, a religious stillness ruled the entire hall. Every eye was directed toward the stage. Every ear prepared itself to hear. My neighbor, an old fur broker, took his dirty cotton out of his ears, in order to soon better absorb the precious tones that had cost two talers of entrée money. But finally there appeared on the stage a dark figure, that seemed to have ascended from the underworld. This was Paganini in his first black gala. The black tailcoat and the black vest, from a bloodcurdling tailor, who was perhaps prescribed by the hellish etiquette at the court of Proserpine. The black pants anxiously shivering upon the thin legs. The long arms appeared yet further extended, while he held in the one hand the violin and in the other the lowered bow, and thereby almost touched the world, as he trotted out his outrageous bowing for the public. In the angular bending of his body lay a dreadful woodenness, and simultaneously something clownishly bestial, that must cause a strange risibility to come upon us; but his face, that seemed even more cadaverously white under the garish orchestra lighting, had something so beseeching, so idiotically humble, that a horrible compassion suppressed our impulse to merriment. Had he picked up these ceremonies from an automaton, or from a dog?
           Is this the pitiful glance of one who is deathly ill, or does there lurk behind it the mockery of a crafty miser? Is this a living person, who is in the grip of death and should, like a dying fencer, satiate the public in the arena of art with his convulsions? Or is this a dead man who has risen from the grave, a vampire with a violin, who while not sucking the blood from our hearts, sucks in any event the money from our wallets?
           Such questions teemed in our heads, while Paganini executed his neverending ceremonies; but all thoughts of this sort had to grow silent straightaway, as the wonderful maestro set his violin by his chin and began to play. Where I'm concerned, you are familiar with my musical second sight, my gift to see a corresponding sound-image for every tone that I hear; and so it was, that Paganini, with every stroke of his bow, also brought visible forms and situations before my eyes, so that he told me all sorts of lurid stories in tonal pictographs, that he more or less juggled up a colorful shadow-play before me, wherein he himself with his violin playing acted the leading role. Already, with the first stroke of his bow, the backdrops around him had changed; he stood with his music stand suddenly in a cheerful room, which was decorated in gay disorder, with squiggly furniture in the Pompadour taste: everywhere little mirrors, gilded cupids, Chinese porcelains, a precious chaos of ribbons, garlands of flowers, white gloves, blonde lace, fake pearls, diadems of gold plate and various divinely tinselly odds and ends, as one would cherish finding in the studio of a primadonna. Paganini's external appearance had likewise changed, and indeed in the most advantageous manner imaginable: he wore short trousers of purple-colored satin, a white vest embroidered in silver, a jacket of bright blue velvet with gold-covered buttons; and the hair, meticulously styled in little locks, played about his face, that bloomed youthfully and rosily and sparkled with sweet tenderness, when he ogled the pretty damsel that stood next to him at the music podium as he played the violin.
           In fact, at his side I beheld a pretty young creature, dressed old-fashionedly, below whose hips billowed white satin, with a bodice so charmingly narrow, powdered hair styled to the greatest extent, a pretty round face so freely gleaming forth with its flashing eyes, its flattering little cheeks, beauty spot and impertinently sweet little nose. In her hand she bore a white roll of paper, and to conclude from her lip-movements as well as the coquetry of her little upper body waggling this way and that, she appeared to sing; but none of her trills were audible to me, and only from the violin playing with which Paganini accompanied the winsome child could I divine what she sang and what he himself felt in his soul during her singing. Oh, those were melodies, she warbled like the nightingale, in the twilight, when the fragrance of the rose befuddles her prescient springtime-heart with yearning! Oh, that was a melting, voluptuously languishing bliss! Those were tones that kissed one another, that fled poutingly one after the other and finally, once again, laughingly entwined, united, and died away in drunken oneness. Yes, the tones pursued a cheerful game, like butterflies, when one teasingly dodges the others, hides itself behind a flower, and finally is caught and then, carelessly delighted, flutters off in the golden sunlight. But a spider, a spider can prepare for such amorous butterflies a sudden, tragic fate. Did the young heart apprehend something of that sort? A wistfully sighing tone, like a presentiment of creeping misfortune, sashayed gently through the most charming melodies that gushed forth from Paganini's violin... His eyes become moist... He kneels adoringly before his Amata... But oh! As he bends to kiss her foot, he spies under the bed, a little Abate! I know not what he has against the poor person, but the Genoese becomes as pallid as death, he seizes the little one with furious hands, gives him various and sundry boxes on the ears, in addition to a considerable number of kicks, chucks him out the door, thereupon he draws a long stiletto from his pocket and plunges it into the breast of the young beauty...
           At that instant, however, there rang out from every side: 'Bravo! Bravo!' Hamburg's enthusiastic men and women paid tribute with their noisiest applause to the great artist, who just now had ended the first part of his concert and bowed with more corners and curves than before. Upon his face, methought, whimpered a yet more imploring humility than before. In his eyes stared an atrocious anxiety, like that of a poor sinner.
           'Godly!' cried my neighbor, the fur broker, as he scratched his ears, 'this piece alone was worth two Talers.'
           As Paganini began anew to play, it became gloomy before my eyes. The tones were not transformed into bright shapes and colors; the figure of the maestro was more encased in dark shadows, out of which darkness his music lamented forth with the most piercing, wailing tones. But many a time, as the little lamp that hung over him cast its puny light upon him, I beheld his blanched visage, upon which boyhood was never quite extinguished. Weird was his suit, split into two colors, of which one was yellow and the other red. His feet were encumbered by heavy chains. Behind him hovered a face, whose physiognomy indicated a frolicsome goat-nature, and long hairy hands, which, as it appeared, I saw from time to time helpfully grip the strings of the violin upon which Paganini played. Often they guided his hand with which he held the bow, and a bleating laughter of acclaim accompanied then the tones, which ever more dolorously and bloodily welled up out of the violin. These were tones equal to the song of the fallen angels, who had courted the daughters of the earth and, expelled from the realm of the blessed, climbed shame-faced down into the underworld. These were tones, in whose abysmal shoals neither consolation nor hope glimmered. Were the saints in heaven to hear such tones, the praise of God should die upon their lips, and they weepingly cover their pious heads! At times, when during the melodic torments of the playing the obligatory goat-laughter bleated forth, I beheld also, in the background, a great many small images of women, who nodded their ugly heads in fiendish merriment and, with teasing Schadenfreude, made the time-honored gesture of scorn, rubbing one index finger with the other [die Rübchen schaben]. Then broke from the violin sounds of fear and bloodcurdling sighs and a sobbing, like one has never heard on earth and perhaps will never again hear on earth, as if it were in the valley of Jehoshaphat, when the colossal trumpet of judgment sounds and the naked corpses creep up out of their graves and await their fates... But the tormented violinist made suddenly a stroke of the bow, such a deliriously despondent stroke, that his chains burst clanking apart and his unearthly helpmate, along with the mocking fiends, disappeared.
           At this instant, my neighbor, the fur broker, said, 'What a shame! He broke a string, that's from the constant pizzicati!'
           Had he really broken a string? I don't know. I only took note of the transfiguration of the tones, and then it seemed to me that Paganini and his surroundings once again changed, suddenly and completely. I could hardly recognize him in the brown monk's garb, that concealed more than clothed him. With his wild-eyed visage half veiled by the hood, a cord about his hips, barefoot, a solitary defiant form, Paganini stood upon a rocky projection by the sea and played violin. It was, methinks, the time of twilight, the sunset overflowed the wide currents of the sea, that colored themselves ever redder and ever more solemnly murmured in a mysterious accord with the tones of the violin. But the redder the sea became, the more lividly blanched the sky, and as finally the billowy water resembled gaudy scarlet blood, the sky above became entirely ghostly bright, white as a corpse, and great and threatening emerged the stars... and these stars were black, black like gleaming coals. But the tones of the violin became ever more stormy and audacious, and in the eyes of the appalling music-man glittered such a derisive lust for destruction, and his thin lips moved so dreadfully rashly, that it looked as if he murmured primordial villainous incantations, with which one conjures up a storm and unleashes those evil spirits that lie imprisoned in the abysses of the ocean. Often, as he swept his fiddle-bow through the air, with his naked arm stretching long and gaunt out of the sleeve of his monk's garment, then he appeared just like a sorcerer, who commands the elements with a magic wand, and then it howled like mad in the depths of the ocean, and the incensed blood-waves leapt so violently into the heights, that they almost spattered the pale ceiling of the sky, and the black stars, with their red foam. It howled, it shrieked, it crashed, as if it wanted to break up the world into rubble, and the monk stroked his violin ever more insistently. He wanted, through the force of his raving will, to break the seventh seal, with which Solomon had sealed the iron pots, after he had locked up the defeated demons in them. The wise king had sunk those pots in the sea, and I even believed that I perceived the voices of those imprisoned spirits as Paganini's violin grumbled its angry bass-tones. But finally I thought I heard something like the jubilation of liberation, and out of the red blood-waves I saw popping the heads of the unleashed demons: monsters of fabled ugliness, crocodiles with bat wings, snakes with deer-antlers, apes sporting conch shells as hats, seals with long patriarchal beards, women's faces with breasts in the place of cheeks, green camel's heads, hermaphroditic creatures of incomprehensible composition, all with coldly clever eyes goggling about and long flipper-claws grasping up at the fiddling monk... but on this one, in his raging conjuration-zeal, the monk's hood fell back, and the wavy hair, fluttering in the wind, curled around his head like black snakes.
           This apparition was so bewildering to the senses, that in order not to become delirious I covered my ears and shut my eyes. Only then did the spook disappear, and as I looked again, I saw the poor Genoese in his normal form, making his normal bows and courtesies, as the audience applauded in the most enraptured way. 'That is the famous playing on the G-string,' remarked my neighbor; 'I myself play the violin and I know what it is to master this instrument!' Fortunately the intermission was not long, otherwise this musical fur-broker would have certainly enmeshed me in a long discussion over art. Paganini set the violin again calmly against his chin, and with the first stroke of his bow began again the wonderful transfiguration of the tones. Only these no longer took form so garishly colored and in determinate shapes. These tones unfolded themselves calmly, majestically surging and swelling, like an organ chorus in a cathedral; and everything around had expanded itself wider and higher to a colossal space, such as not the bodily eye, but rather only the eye of the spirit can grasp it. In the middle of this space floated a shining orb, on which stood a gigantic and proudly sublime man, playing the violin. This orb, was it the sun? I don't know. But in the characteristics of the man I recognized Paganini, only idealistically beautified, divinely transfigured, smiling in conciliation. His body bloomed in the most powerful manliness, a bright blue garment encompassed the ennobled limbs, about his shoulders flowed, in gleaming locks, the black hair; and how he stood so firmly and securely, a sublime god-image, and stroked the violin: it was if as all creation hearkened to his tones. He was the man-planet, around whom the universe moved, sounding with measured solemnity and and in blessed rhythm. These great lights, that, so calmly gleaming, hovered around him, were they the stars of the heavens, and that sounding harmony, that arose from their movements, was that the harmony of the spheres, whereof poets and seers have reported so much ecstasizing? At times, when I have strained to see far into the dawning distance, there I thought I saw pure white flowing garments, in which colossal pilgrims mutely wander around, with white staves in their hands and how extraordinary! the golden knobs on every staff were those same great lights, that I had taken for stars. These pilgrims proceeded in a vast circular path around the great performer, the golden knobs of their staves gleamed ever brighter from the tones of his violin, and the chorales that rang out from their lips and which I had taken for the harmony of the spheres, were actually only the ebbing echoes of those violin tones. An unnameable sacred fervor dwelt in these sounds, that often trembled scarcely audible, like the tones of a horn in the moonlight, and then finally roared out with unbridled jubilation, as if a thousand bards struck the strings of their harps and lifted their voices in a song of victory. Those were sounds that the ear never hears, but rather only the heart can dream of, when it rests during the night on the heart of its beloved. Perhaps the heart can grasp them in the bright daylight, if it sinks itself rejoicingly in the beauty lines and ovals of a Greek artwork..."
           "Or when one has drunk too much Bouteille champagne!" a laughing voice was suddenly heard to say, that woke our story-teller as if from a dream. As he turned around, he beheld the doctor, who, in the company of the black Deborah had come quite softly into the room, in order to inquire as to how his medicine had worked on the infirm one.
          "This sleep does not please me," said the doctor, as he indicated the sofa.
          Maximilian, who, sunk in the phantasm of his own speech, had failed to notice that Maria had been asleep for some time, bit himself peevishly on the lips.

Posted by permission of the translator ~ © 2005

Homepage Send us Mail