Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy. He was taught to play the violin from a very young age and and was immediately recognized as a virtuoso after he gave his first public concert at the age of 11. In his early teens he studied under Rollo and Ghiretti, but he could not cope well with his success: at the age of 19 he was gambling and drinking. His career was saved by an unknown lady, who took him to her estate, where he recovered and studied the violin for three years.
He reappeared when he was 23, and he soon became a legend for his unparalleled mastery of the violin. As he became more and more famous, it was rumored that he acquired his incredible virtuosity in a pact with the devil. He died in Nice on the 27th May, 1840, leaving behind a series of sonatas, caprices and 6 violin concertos.
One of the best known of Paganini's compositions are the 24 Caprices, written around 1817 for solo violin. They are among the most technically difficult music ever written for the instrument, calling for a very wide range of bowing techniques, extremely wide left hand stretches, double stopped trills and harmonics and left hand pizzicati. The last of these pieces, in A minor, is a set of twelve variations, and many other composers have taken its theme as the basis for a set of variations of their own. Works based on this caprice include:
- Franz Liszt - the last of his six Grandes Études de Paganini for solo piano (1851)
- Johannes Brahms - Paganini Variations (1862-63), two books of pieces for solo piano
- Sergei Rachmaninov - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934), a set of twenty four variations for piano and orchestra
- Witold Lutoslawski - Paganini Variations (1941), originally for two pianos, with a later version for piano and orchestra
- George Rochberg - Caprice Variations (1970), fifty new variations for solo violin
- Andrew Lloyd Webber, Variations for cello and orchestra, originally written for cello and rock band