An old gravedigger recites the story of Nicolo Paganini, the 18th-century Italian violinist whose extraordinary skills and eerie stage presence made him a musical legend.
There are unlikely to be too many children's books about this intriguing subject from history, a famous Italian violinist mostly unknown these days outside of classical music circles. In a biography with a slight influx of mythology, Paganini is depicted as a child reportedly born with a message from an angel to his mother: "You will bear a son the world will remember, but his fame will not be without cost." Playing concerts by the time he was nine years old, the fiddler drew fame that spread along with rumors of an unholy power behind his talent. Despite being sickly throughout his life, he lived to the age of 57 and traveled to many countries to give virtuoso performances. This story is engaging as an introduction to both a legendary musician and the life he led in a much earlier era. The mythology is introduced as part of the legacy rather than fact, embellishing the story rather than driving it. Further elevating this effort from the typical youth-oriented biography are the large, full-page paintings. In a bold dramatic style, they add a sense of brooding energy, historical ambiance, and mystery. Just the thing to attract a youngster to the violin, or to practice more if he or she has already begun.
–Armack Intida, The Bloomsbury Review , Jan/Feb 2009
Readers may not be familiar with the name Paganini, but after one look at the dramatic cover, with the spectral violinist staring back, a slight smile on his lips, they will want to find out more. The subtitle rightly deems this "the life and legend" of Paganini. The author includes all sorts of mysterious stories that come under the latter, beginning with a dream Paganini's mother had in which an angel foretold the boy's unusual life. Some said he learned his craft in a dungeon; others, that the devil guided his fingers. Incidents that might be made up are true. Paganini was pronounced dead of measles as a child and was almost buried before it was discovered he was still alive. The amazing finger work virtuosity he displayed might have been caused by physical conditions such as Marfan's Syndrome. The book begins on an eerie note as a gravedigger at Paganini's monument tells his young assistant the story of the violinist, and the folksy tone of the narrative will draw kids close as the story of Paganini's life unfolds. All this is set against breathtaking, chalk-like art that resembles the work of Toulouse-Lautrec. Some illustrations focus on intense faces, while others depict haunting, mesmerizing outdoor scenes: a silhouetted Paganini darting through an alley followed by several black cats. An endnote firms up the facts, and a selected bibliography of adult books is appended.
–Eileen Cooper, Booklist (Starred Review), November 2008
Frisch presents Paganini's story as told by old Jacopo, a gravedigger in a Parma cemetery, to his young assistant Francisco. The youth thought that the musician was only a myth. Jacopo, who knew him, explains that the legends around him began when his birth was announced to his mother by a "winged messenger." He was also believed dead at age four, but came back to begin his precocious lifetime with the violin. Paganini travels everywhere, amazing audiences with his incredible playing ability while moving them to tears with his compositions. His ill health and almost frightening appearance add to the legends that gather around him. After touring throughout Europe, "his flame flickered." Jacopo tells of seeing him at the end. At the grave, Francisco is skeptical. "Believe it or not!" Jacopo replies. Kelley's expressionistic full-page scenes are dramatic settings of the European cities Nicolo toured, with horse-drawn carriages in street scenes heavily in shadows. But mainly there are the portraits of the almost ghost-like violinist with his long fingers and angular face. One double-page image of him playing, eyes blankly white, bent over, long unkempt black hair partly covering his pale face, epitomizes his otherworldly appearance. The stark, white-faced portrait on the jacket contrasts with the even starker cover. A "Postlude" adds information on many aspects of his life; there is also a brief bibliography.
–Ken and Sylvia Marantz, Children's Literature
Paganini's life is told through a calculatedly creepy, unintentionally confusing blend of biography and supernatural, as a gravedigger tells his assistant about the virtuoso nineteenth-century violinist and composer. An appended "postlude" does some (but not much) to help separate fact from speculation. Accomplished dark, brooding, strikingly angular illustrations are reminiscent of Paul Klee's paintings.
–Norah Piehl, Horn Book Guide , Spring 2009
His name is familiar today only to lovers of musical virtuosity, but in his brief life the Italian-born violinist and composer thrilled late 18th- and early 19th-century Europe with his brilliant style, unnatural technique and stage presence. Frisch tells his life as a folktale that begs to be read aloud. Paganini almost died of the measles as a child, outshone the learned teachers of the time, gambled and chased women. A disease left his joints unnaturally loose. He dressed in black and had a complexion "the color of the moon." Having refused the last rites of the Catholic Church, he was denied burial for years. Combine this story with Kelley's dramatically dark full-page paintings that conjure up images of Van Gogh, Picasso cubism and a set design for Cabaret and you have a sure-fire Halloween program. Just add some music. The story is told by a fictional cemetary worker, which may, on a technicality, disqualify this as a biography. Still, the life remains with all its fascinating ups and downs. A discography should have been included.
–Kirkus , February 2009
While it is unlikely that today's children have heard of the famous 19th century musician, this picture book will serve as a welcome introduction. Surrounded by rumors and legends, the story of the renowned violinist is sure to intrigue young readers. At age four, Paganini "died" after a bout of the measles but just as he was being prepared for burial, someone noticed he was still breathing. Thus returned from the "dead," he went on to become one of the most extraordinary musicians of his day. Tall by nature and gaunt and ashen due to continued illnesses, Paganini looked otherworldly. His mythical playing reinforced that notion, and tales of deals with the devil surrounded him. The dark, moody artwork fits this story perfectly and makes it just a little bit scary. Maybe Paganini did make a deal with the devil. Youngsters will have to make up their own minds after reading this engaging tale about a captivating and gifted man.
–Joan Kindig, School Library Journal , February 2009
The picture book biographer is often a limited soul. If you are churning out biography after biography for a large company then I'm sure the job must feel fairly rote. You tally up the facts, place them in some kind of semblance of order, slap in a timeline, and you are good to go. Personally, I am more interested in the people who walk into the game without any previous experience and end up producing something wild and wacky and doggone weird. Wild, wacky, and weird would actually describe the biography, Dark Fiddler: The Life and Legend of Nicolo Paganini, to a tee. Pay attention to that subtitle there. "Legend" it says, and certainly author Aaron Frisch is unafraid of calling upon rumor, hearsay, and conjecture to weave a fascinating biography of a man suspected of being in league with the devil himself. The result in an engrossing read, but a difficult product, particularly when you consider its actual purpose. I tend to prefer creative rather than utilitarian sensibilities, but there will undoubtedly be a couple people who enjoy this book while simultaneously scratching their heads over it. A difficult beauty, to say the least.
–Elizabeth Bird, SLJ Blog: A Fuse #8 Production , December 2008