Program Notes: Paganini’s 24 Caprices


“What a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens! What sufferings, what misery, what tortures in those four strings!” This is how Franz Liszt described one of Nicolò Paganini’s performances he had a chance to hear. These words reveal the kind of impact a Paganini concert had on its audience, and what an unparalleled artist he was. By far the most famous violinist of the Romantic Era, Paganini stupefied audiences around Europe with his personal magnetism and virtuosic technique. He contributed to redefine the musical landscape of the time as a touring virtuoso, and influenced many musicians of the time, including Liszt, who strived to achieve on the piano what Paganini had accomplished on the violin, and Robert Schumann, who decided to seriously pursue a career in music after hearing a performance by Paganini. Others affected by Paganini’s unique music and performance style included Frédéric Chopin, Charles Auguste de Bériot, Karol Lipiński and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst.

How did he manage to achieve such an incredible level of artistry, showmanship and technical proficiency? Many rumors arose at the time, including one that he had a pact with the devil and another that he spent years in jail with nothing else to do other than practice the violin. A more plausible explanation however is that Paganini’s own genius and enthusiasm for the instrument were responsible for his astonishing development as an artist. In his own words: “I was enthusiastic about my instrument and studied it unceasingly in order to discover new and hitherto unsuspected effects.” What makes Paganini’s development as a violinist even more extraordinary is the fact that he had an unimpressive violin education in Northern Italy, where he was introduced to the instrument by his father and had only violin teachers of minor consequence – the leading center for violin training in Europe during Paganini’s youth in the 1790’s was Paris. Listening to other violinists such as the Polish Auguste Duranowski (a pupil of Viotti) certainly was a crucial factor to inspire the young Genovese as well.

Paganini’s most important compositions, the 24 Caprices Op. 1, are surrounded by mystery. When were they composed? When and where did Paganini perform them, if at all? We do know that they were published in 1820 in Milan and that Paganini completed the work by 1817, the date written in the autograph manuscript that was handed by the composer to the publisher. Among the many theories as to when exactly they were composed, perhaps one of the most plausible ones is the version offered by violinist Karol Lipiński, nicknamed by some the “Polish Paganini” and an admirer of the Italian virtuoso (he met Paganini in Piacenza in 1818), that the caprices were composed in different times and places, and given as gifts to friends. This could have taken place during Paganini’s employment at the Napoleonic court in Lucca (1801-1809). Regarding performances of the Caprices, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, a virtuoso violinist that followed Paganini’s footsteps (he attended many of his recitals and at one point rented a room next to where Paganini was staying so he could hear the master practicing) says that Paganini used to play some of the Caprices as encores in his recitals. Regardless of the exact circumstances of the history of their composition and performances, the Caprices became very popular works. Liszt, Robert Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Szimanovsky, Lutoslawski, Rochberg and Schnittke are among the composers who wrote pieces based on them. Perhaps the most famous of these works is Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, op. 43 for piano and orchestra, which is based on the theme from caprice no. 24.

Composed before Paganini became the legendary violinist of the European tours, which started in Vienna in 1828, the Caprices reveal a composer seeking to offer the world a torrent of technical novelties. He was certainly inspired by the 24 Caprices of Pietro Locatelli. Written much earlier, these caprices were published in 1733 as part of a collection of 12 concertos for violin and orchestra entitled L’arte del Violino, Op. 3. Here, the caprices are to be played as cadenzas, following the first and last movements of each concerto. Another set that might have given some ideas to Paganini is the 24 Caprices en forme d’etudes, op. 22, by Pierre Rode, a pupil of Viotti and professor of violin at the Paris Conservatoire. However, Paganini’s caprices far exceed the technical demands of both collections.

A number of demanding bow strokes are present in the caprices. The ricochet, a bow stroke in which the bow is dropped and bounces on the string, can be heard in different ways throughout the set. In Caprice no. 1, across the four strings of the violin, with the bow direction being changed every four notes, and in Caprice no. 9, across one or two strings at a time, in groups of five notes. In the middle section of Caprice no. 5, Paganini suggests the use of the ricochet stroke in an ingenious way: in every group of four notes, three are to be played on a down-bow, and one on an up-bow. Since the desired effect is so difficult to be achieved to a satisfactory degree, many violinists choose to play this section with one bow direction for each note, ignoring Paganini’s original marking in the score.

The staccato stroke can be found in several caprices, including no. 10, 15 and 22. It’s a bow stroke in which the performer plays several notes on one bow direction, with a separation between each note. In caprice no. 7 we find an extensive passage of five measures in which Paganini writes a sequence of notes to be played both in staccato and ricochet, or entirely in staccato, once more revealing the creative genius of the composer.

String crossing is a technique that Paganini elevated to new heights. It is featured throughout most of caprice no. 2. Here, one finds extensive passages in which Paganini combines string crossing with extensions for the left hand, creating passages extremely uncomfortable to play, such as one towards the middle of the caprice in which the violinist has to go back and forth with the bow between the lowest and the highest strings of the violin, while playing notes at a very high register. String crossing also takes a central role in caprice no. 12, this time, combined with the legato stroke and left hand extensions.

Paganini’s music makes use of the full length of the violin’s fingerboard. Caprice no. 5 opens and closes with a section of arpeggios and scales, culminating with a high note to be played at the edge of the fingerboard. In no. 7, there is actually a note to be played beyond the limits of the fingerboard, and in no. 19’s middle section, there is a passage to be played entirely on the g string. We learn from Carl Guhr, a violinist and conductor who had a chance to hear Paganini several times in concert, and who is the author of a treatise on Paganini’s technique entitled Paganini’s Kunst die Violine zu Spielen, that playing passages entirely on the g string was one of Paganini’s signature “tricks.” He would sometimes even tune his g string a minor third, or even a major third higher to increase the impact of this effect on his listeners.

Paganini makes frequent use of multiple-stops, that is: two, three or even four notes simultaneously. In caprice no. 4, often considered the most difficult to play, we find a great number of double stops, ranging from seconds to tenths. The middle section of Caprice no. 17 deserves special attention: it is to be played entirely in octaves, in a passage that contrasts with the humorous character of that caprice’s opening and closing sections.

There are several passages in many of Paganini’s showpieces that require the violinist to pluck the strings with the fingers of the left hand (“pizzicato”) while they simultaneously define the pitches — their normal function. Such works include the variations on Nel Cor più non mi sento and God Save the King, and the last movement of his second violin concerto, known as “La Campanella.” We can get a taste of this effect in the 9th variation of Caprice no. 24, the only passage in the entire set to be played with left-hand pizzicato.

Also present in the caprices is Paganini’s lyrical side. After one of his performances in Vienna in 1828, Franz Schubert remarked that he “heard an angel sing.” Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann’s father and Robert Schumann’s piano teacher remarked that “he had never heard a singer who so touched him as the violin of Paganini in an Adagio.” Gioachino Rossini, the famous bel canto composer, who knew Paganini personally, praised him for his ability to compose in an operatic manner. In Caprices no. 4, 11 and 21, we experience this lyricism in wonderful ways.

Several of the caprices received nicknames due to their popularity, such as “The Hunt” referring to the imitation of the horns in Caprice no. 9, and “Devil’s Laughter” referring to a sequence of descending thirds in the opening of Caprice no. 13. “Pastoral” is the nickname attributed to caprice No. 20 because of its use of the D string as a drone, resembling the sound of a rural bagpipe, and “The Trill” is attributed to No. 6, as the violinist plays a melody over a trilled accompaniment. No. 14 is also known as “The March” because of its rhythmic patterns, and no. 1 as “L’arpeggio.” Here, Paganini quotes the opening of Locatelli’s Caprice no. 7, perhaps as a nod to Locatelli’s set.

Today the Caprices are often performed on modern violins and bows, but rarely on period instruments. This summer at Aston Magna, for the first time in the Festival’s 45-year history, the Caprices will be heard on a period violin with gut strings and a classical bow.

~Copyright 2017, by Edson Scheid