Paganini and the Solo Violin: Caprice No. 24
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Paganini and the Solo Violin: Caprice No. 24

A discussion of Paganini\\\'s final Caprice - one of the ultimate challenges for violinists.

Nicolò Paganini was perhaps history's most celebrated violin virtuoso and one of the most fascinating figures in nineteenth century music. He excited the curiosity of all who saw him, and there was always an aura of mystery associated with him; the words "fantastic," "prodigious," and "supernatural" were constantly used by his contemporaries when they spoke or wrote about him. Some people swore that the man had made a pact with the devil, and some even claimed to have seen "the devil at his elbow, directing his arm and guiding his bow." More importantly, however, he elicited the mingled amazement and admiration of all who heard him play, including such Romantic figures as Schumann, Chopin, Théophile Gautier, and even Goethe, who was thirty-three years his senior. Rossini, who was not given to unrestrained praise, looked upon Paganini with devotion, and at the same time, something akin to fear. Meyerbeer followed the virtuoso through his travels, in a vain attempt to penetrate the mystery of his powers. After hearing him play in Paris in 1832, Liszt took a leave from performing in public to perfect his already outstanding piano technique. Hector Berlioz once wrote: "'A man of such wit,' Choron said in speaking of Weber: 'He is a meteor!' With equal justice one could say of Paganini: 'He is a comet!' For never did a flaming star burst more abruptly on the firmament of art or excite in the course of its immense ellipse more astonishment mixed with a sort of terror before vanishing forever."

As a composer, something of the intense individuality for which he was renowned had bearing on his creative work. The musicologist Eric Blom described his works as having "a quality and character all their own and...strangely independent of the general musical idiom of their time as is the music of Berlioz among contemporaries or that of Pergolesi earlier and Sibelius later." Berlioz himself declared: "One would have to write a volume to indicate all the finds Paganini has made in his works in respect to novel effects, ingenious procedures, noble and imposing forms, [and] orchestral combinations not even suspected before him." Schumann considered the technical difficulties in his compositions as "the solstice of virtuosity." Indeed, Paganini always took good care to make the music he wrote for his instrument so difficult that he alone could play it; throughout his life, most of his contemporaries thought his music was unplayable in the demands that he made of the performer.

Paganini's Twenty-four Caprices were composed before his twentieth year as his Opus 1.  They reveal a wealth of pedagogic lore coupled with inexhaustible fantasy and poetic romance. With the ultimate purpose of achieving the impossible (the technical difficulty of the Caprices is such that for a long time many considered them unplayable), Paganini's work has been instrumental in enlarging the technical possibilities of the violin as well as establishing the framework for the virtuoso accomplishments of today. The Caprices encompass all sorts of technical demands and unusual effects, including the use of harmonics, pizzicato, rapid passage work and the playing of two, three and four strings simultaneously.

Begin at 4:03' on this audio file for the 24th Caprice

First page of the score for Caprice No. 24 for unaccompanied violin

Liszt, Brahms and Schumann were quick to recognize the musical value of the Caprices and variously transcribed a number of them for piano. Rachmaninoff, in turn, chose the Caprice No. 24 as the basis for his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra.

 

* Author's addendum:

* The embedded audio file is a recording of Perlman playing three of the 24 Caprices.  It's worth listening to all three, here, but the 24th begins at the 4:03' point.  There is an enormous selection of recordings available, and this is unquestionably one of the best.  More importantly, when purchasing your own recording, avoid amateur versions.  Because this piece is known primarily for its degree of difficulty, every violin student will tackle it at some point in their development, and listening to a student make the attempt is something I'd only recommend for parents.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists by purchasing music and art legally.  Thank you.

* For further reading, please view more of my articles on Paganini at:

https://knoji.com/paganini-from-complicated-childhood-to-adult-virtuoso-the-first-violin-concerto/

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Comments (10)

Love this piece, love Perlman's version. Reminds me of speed guitar playing.

James: Thank you. It's very inventive for you to think of that, because there is a fantastic transcription of it for solo guitar. Here is a link to an amazing performance by a former teacher of mine from undergrad, Eliot Fisk. To answer the next question, yes I did play it, but it is no longer in my current repertoire. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbeAbllBpGo

excellent my friend

Thanks so much, Carol.

Ileen, my first guitar teacher was initially a violinist (who got lured away by the sex, drugs and R&R), and had a fluency and attack I've only seen with other guitarists who first played violin. I know it may not be under your radar, but Randy Rhoads who played with Ozzy Osbourne, was one such guitarist. He was faster and smoother and more cohesive than any one I've ever heard. And I dare say it was from initially playing that small, fretless neck, and playing such complicated pieces: If you relate the guitar work in this video to the violin, the guitar solo is quite beautiful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGdstwaxhcU

James: I'm familiar with it. My teacher in music/art HS was also first a violinist, and and fled to Spain in the 1930s to study with Segovia, by the name of Leonid Bolotine. He lived long enough to see me play in Segovia's last master class. He's long passed, but enjoyed more fame as a performer in his native Russia. I like to believe that any capable guitarist with a thorough understanding of harmonic voice-leading can achieve the "horizonal" nature of playing that you describe. It's more about contraputal theory than it is about playing technique, but either way, it takes knowledge and practice. For further listening, you may enjoy listening to the various arrangements (to compare and contrast how bowing technique translates to other instruments, including tuned percussion) - of Bach's Chaconne in D minor from the solo violin partitas, which has been nicely transcribed for left-hand piano, cello, and of course, solo guitar.

James: I'm familiar with it. My teacher in music/art HS was also first a violinist, and and fled to Spain in the 1930s to study with Segovia, by the name of Leonid Bolotine. He lived long enough to see me play in Segovia's last master class. He's long passed, but enjoyed more fame as a performer in his native Russia. I like to believe that any capable guitarist with a thorough understanding of harmonic voice-leading can achieve the "horizonal" nature of playing that you describe. It's more about contraputal theory than it is about playing technique, but either way, it takes knowledge and practice. For further listening, you may enjoy listening to the various arrangements (to compare and contrast how bowing technique translates to other instruments, including tuned percussion) - of Bach's Chaconne in D minor from the solo violin partitas, which has been nicely transcribed for left-hand piano, cello, and of course, solo guitar.

Nice and interesting.

Interesting classical masterpieces, Ileen.

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

Very interesting article, as is the discussion below.

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