• Nikhil Hogan

How did Paganini learn music?

Did you know that Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), one of the greatest, most-influential violinists the world has seen, had a Grade 8 in Violin Performance with distinction.

Just kidding! Of course he didn't, none of the greats learned music that way. As you will see, Paganini instead probably had a more creative form of training along the lines of the Neapolitan partimento tradition, which focuses on improvisation and composition.

Let's talk about how he learned and who his teachers were.

Alessandro Rolla receives a young Paganini in 1795

In 1795, looking to secure a more esteemed teacher for his young son, Paganini's father takes the youth to see the famous Alessandro Rolla.

Alessandro Rolla was a famed violinist in Italy who studied for 8 years with Giovanni Andrea Fioroni. Fioroni himself studied with one of the greatest Neapolitan partimento teachers of all time, Leonardo Leo, in Naples for 15 years.

Anyway, Rolla was taken aback at the youth's skill and immediately recommends to the father that his son should work with the famous operatic composer, Ferdinando Paer, instead.

Who was Ferdinando Paer?

Ferdinando Paer (1771-1839) was a renowned Italian composer who wrote operas and oratorios. Ludwig van Beethoven thought highly of his work, admiring his C minor Funeral March from his Opera Achille (1801).

You're going to see the Neapolitan partimento link again. Paer's teacher was Gasparo Ghiretti, who was a former student at the Conservatorio della Pietà de' Turchini in Naples, one of the big Neapolitan conservatories at the time.

Both Paer and Ghiretti worked with Paganini for an indeterminate amount of time in Parma, between 1795 and 1797.

So how did Paganini learn?

Apart from his natural performance prowess, Paganini appeared to have worked on violin technique with Alessandro Rolla. He also studied counterpoint and composition with both Gasparo Ghiretti and Ferdinando Paer. I'm no musicologist, but my simple guess is that with all these Neapolitan partimento-trained pros surrounding him, that's got to have influenced his development in a big way.

Also living in Italy in the 18th century, when the Neapolitan conservatories were at their height of influence, must have greatly impacted the training and direction of our swashbuckling violin hero.


Graded music exams are nothing like how Paganini would have learned music. He would have been probably taught according to the methods of the Neapolitan partimento tradition. This would have involved an understanding of counterpoint, solfeggio, partimento and entailed great amounts of improvisation and composition.

Even if a child never wanted to scale the technical heights of Paganini, wouldn't it be more fun to learn music more like how he did? With improvisation and composition instead of dry, unthinking rote-memorization that leads to a creative dead-end.

So check out this remarkable partimento tradition! Its current revival marks a major shift in music education, and a move back to creativity with composition and improvisation.

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