Every day, Paganini’s mother would repeat it. “Nicoló,” she said, handing him his very first violin, “You will be the greatest violinist in the world.”
“Nicoló!” She screeched when he forgot to practice, “How is it you are to be the greatest violinist in the world with this indulgence!”
“Nicoló…” she sighed when he came home drunk. The party he'd been at was the first and only one he attended as a guest. “You will be the greatest violinist the world has ever seen. This is disgraceful.” And then she made him practice for five hours straight.
After that party, Paganini vowed to devote himself to the violin. it became his life, music coming out of his hands, ears, mouth. He put away all other pursuits of happiness or love. All he did was stand in his room, sawing away at his violin. Concertos, sonatas, caprices, he played through it all. And when there was nothing left to play, he made up his own music.
On the day his first piece of music was published, Paganini’s mother embraced him. When she stepped back, there were tears in her eyes. “At last, Nicoló,” she beamed, “At last you truly are the greatest violinist in the world.”
And yet-and yet, that day, when Paganini stepped in front of the crowd to play, he felt, for the first time in years, that something was off. It wasn’t his violin. He always kept that in tune. He wasn’t sick, but he felt his forehead, just to be sure. What was wrong?
“Ladies and gentlemen, Nicoló Paganini, performing one of his pieces for your enjoyment tonight.” A polite smattering of applause, and Paganini stepped up to the center. He bowed, put bow to string, and began to play.
Halfway through the piece, he noticed a man in the corner with a set of paints and an easel. He looked at Paganini, then at the canvas, then back at him, adding a little bit of paint each time.
Is he painting me? Paganini wondered, nearly missing an arpeggio. He had to turn his concentration back to the music so as to not miss more notes on his own piece.
When he was done playing and all the finely dressed ladies and gentlemen applauded, he was free to examine the painter more closely. As he walked behind the easel, he saw a smaller, more messy version of himself on the canvas. The artist was adding the finishing touches on his nose. When he was satisfied, he jumped up and grabbed Paganini’s hand, shaking it vigorously.
“Eugene Delacroix, sir, and may I tell you that I have never had a better behaved subject. You stood in one place the whole time. Hardly moved, except for your bow.”
“You were painting-me?” Paganini bent to look at the canvas.
“Yes,” Delacriox squinted at his work. “The biggest problem I had was that-if you don’t mind me saying so-you didn’t seem to have any feeling.”
“What I mean to say is that you weren’t playing from the heart. It was all from the head. I’ve seen other musicians-none as talented as you, yes, but they all played from the heart. They felt the music here.” Delacriox put his hand over his heart. “Other than that, you were a good subject.” He shook Paganini’s hand again. “Thank you very much.”
As Paganini walked away, towards his furiously beckoning mother, he wondered at what the artist had said. He didn’t play from the heart. He never had. Was that what was missing?
Perhaps he would have continued thinking if his mother hadn’t introduced him to the Crown Prince of Italy, and then a long line of other very important people, and then….well, he put it out of his mind altogether. The only time he recalled it was the brief moment when he saw Delacroix's painting there in the museum. And then it was gone.