Niccolo Paganini

October 27

Niccolò Paganini (1782)

It was on this date, October 27, 1782, that Italian virtuoso violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini was born in Genoa. Like Mozart, who was born 26 years earlier, Paganini was a child prodigy, composing a sonata at age eight and performing onstage from the age of eleven. He learned much from his father and studied composition with masters in Parma.

He toured and captivated Vienna in 1828 and made admirers of Goethe, Heine and Schumann on his equally successful tour in Germany. Paganini went on to conquer Paris and London. During his concert career, it was rumored that his mesmerizing virtuosity was a gift from the devil — a rumor Paganini did nothing to discourage! Very few of his compositions were published during his lifetime, which helped to stymie imitators. As for the inimitable technique that drew audiences in droves, the Grove Dictionary says,

Apart from his unparalleled technical wizardry on the instrument, including the use of left-hand pizzicato, double-stop harmonics, ricochet bowings and a generally daredevil approach to performance — all of which influenced successive violinists (Ernst, Bériot, Vieuxtemps) — he is most important for his artistic impact on Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Berlioz, who took up his technical challenge in the search for greater expression in their own works.
Sadly, Paganini's international touring schedule crushed his health by 1834. He announced his retirement in 1835, but later lost his voice. Niccolò Paganini finally died from cancer of the larynx, in Nice, on 27 May 1840. He was 57.

His principal biographer, the orthodox Catholic Count Conestabile,* admits only that Paganini practiced "religious indifferentism." Paganini received no last sacrament nor any religious service at his funeral, and his burial was non-religious. At least in Italy, Paganini was well known as "an Atheist."

* Gian Carlo Conestabile, Vita di Niccolò Paganini, 1851, p. 186.

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Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus (1466)

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
(In regione caecorum rex est luscus.)
—Desiderius Erasmus, Adagia (III, IV, 96)

It was also on this date, October 27, 1466, that the Dutch author, and the greatest humanist scholar of the northern Renaissance, Desiderius Erasmus was born Gerrit Gerritszoon in Rotterdam, in what is now the Netherlands. He was the product of a liaison between a housekeeper-niece and a Dutch priest. Ordained a priest himself, he learned first-hand about the laxity and corruption of contemporary monasteries when he entered one run by the Augustinian order.

Erasmus became a life-long critic of the Catholic Church, but kept his life long (he died on 12 July 1536, age 69) by distancing himself from both Lutheranism and Romanism — he claimed "no inclination to die for the truth." He was known for hearty, Rabelaisian, living, usually on someone else's tab. Still, his wit and scholarship — he was for a time professor of Greek at Oxford University — won him international notice. Erasmus has been described as "the man who laid the egg that Luther hatched," but his refusal to join forces with Luther did nothing to prevent the Catholics from burning his excellent edition of the Greek New Testament.

In a less theologically repressive age, Erasmus would have been more candid about his skepticism. However, in his Praise of Folly (Encomium Moriae, 1688), which he dedicated to his friend, Sir Thomas More, he writes, "As the Christian Church was founded in blood, confirmed by blood, and advanced by blood, so now in like manner... the Popes take to the sword." His letters, too, contain caustic indictments. In one, Erasmus says that "the monarchy of the Popes at Rome, as it is now, is a pestilence to Christendom, but I do not know if it is expedient to touch this sore openly."

Erasmus was active during the reigns of some of the most corrupt popes in Catholic history — Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X — so his philosophical prudence cannot be faulted. Although the Catholic Encyclopedia has the effrontery to claim him, Erasmus was the greatest Freethinker of his time.

* Some sources (such as the Catholic Encyclopedia) put his date of birth as late as October 28, some as early as October 26. Here I follow the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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