by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor
In the years before I had my own family, I devoted a big part of my life to amateur musicianship. I played the mandolin, an instrument favored by my Greek-born grandfather. Unlike many of today’s American players who immerse themselves in the rich performing styles of bluegrass music, I was most interested in the mandolin’s classical-music traditions. That’s how the 19th-century Italian virtuoso-composer Niccolò Paganini first came to my attention.
Paganini, best remembered today as a violin superstar whose modest output of compositions is still heard in the concert hall, also played the mandolin and wrote intriguing music for the instrument. They were too difficult for me to attempt. But his name and music continue to attract my interest to this day.
Recently, while reading Guy de Maupassant’s nonfiction book Afloat (Sur l’eau) — a lyrical journal of sailing in the Mediterranean — I came upon the author’s account of the strange disposition of Paganini’s body after the composer’s death from a respiratory infection in 1840. In Maupassant’s telling of the tale, Paganini’s son Achillino tried to bring his father’s body to his home city of Genoa for burial. Genoese authorities refused to admit the body into the city for a variety of religious and public-health reasons, and Achillino kept searching for a suitable resting place for his father. The citizens of Marseille and Cannes also would not accept Paganini’s corpse into their cemeteries. Finally, in desperation, Achillino sailed to the uninhabited island of Saint-Ferréol — a reef “red and bristling like a porcupine,” Maupassant wrote — where he buried Paganini’s casket in the rocky soil until a better place could be found. There it remained for five years.
Many biographers of Paganini dismiss Maupassant’s account as an unlikely fable. In 1891, however, a friend of Paganini, Auguste Blondel, published a memoir of the violinist’s final days and burial that supported Maupassant’s narrative and placed Blondel at the scene of the interment on Saint-Ferréol.
Maupassant wrote that Achillino returned to Saint-Ferréol in 1845 to retrieve his father’s body and bring it to Genoa for burial. The corpse of Paganini still did not rest, though, and it was repeatedly subjected to disinterment and openings of the casket until 1896, when it received a final burial in Parma.
I would rather not recall this final episode in Paganini’s life and death when I listen to the composer’s transporting music. Maybe in time I will forget the details. “Would one not have preferred that the extraordinary violinist should have remained at rest upon the bristling reef, cradled by the song of the waves as they break on the torn and craggy rock?” Maupassant declared. I have to agree.
For more information:
Kawabata, Mai. Paganini: The ‘Demonic’ Virtuoso. Boydell Press, 2013.
de Maupassant, Guy. Afloat (Sur l’eau). George Routledge and Sons, 1889.
Paganini, Niccolò. 24 Caprices for Violin. [Video] Performed by Salvatore Accardo.