Work: Caprices (24) for Violin solo, Op. 1
About This Work
It is perhaps sadly ironic that the works directly inspired by the last of Niccolò Paganini's prodigiously difficult 24 Caprices for solo violin (ca. 1817) have overshadowed their source and indeed, the whole of this hugely influential set of
technical exercises. But unquestionably, it is the demonic theme of Caprice No. 24, which provided the impetus for composers as diverse as Brahms, Rachmaninov, Lutoslawski, and Lloyd-Webber to use the theme as the basis for their own variation works, which has become Paganini's musical epitaph. This sinister, angular theme conjures up in our minds the gaunt, white face of the violinist whom many thought was in league with Lucifer himself more palpably than any other!
Paganini's music has often been slighted for its lack of profundity; he was, after all, a superstar violinist first and a composer second. Among violinists, however, mastery of the Caprices, Op. 1, represents the summit of technical attainment, and beside the solo violin works of Bach, and perhaps the much later solo sonatas by Ysaÿe, this set stands as one of the greatest volumes of music ever devised for a solo string instrument.
The Caprices were published by Ricordi in 1820, and while their musical content reflected Paganini's astounding technical brilliance, they also served another groundbreaking function. Although primarily intended as technical exercises "A gli Artisti" (dedicated "To the Artists"), the caprices are so wide-ranging in their scope that they actually transcend all expected pedagogic constraints, and thus stand out impressively as bravura miniatures endowed with genuine musical as well as instructional value. In this regard, the series inspired a new interest in compositions which were at once formidably challenging, but also musically rewarding to both players and listeners alike. One of the earliest composers to recognize and emulate this was Chopin, whose Études for piano were directly inspired by the violin caprices. Other composers, notably Berlioz (who composed his symphony Harold in Italy to display Paganini's skills on the viola), Schumann, and especially Franz Liszt, were deeply impressed.
The 24 Caprices for solo violin encompass every imaginable aspect of violin technique, and in many cases, for example in their use of complex multiple stopping, fast passagework, and imaginative bowing permutations, very few, if indeed any other violinist contemporary with Paganini himself could have actually played them! Some of the more spectacular violin pyrotechnics include the combination of bowing and pizzicato (plucking), a full exploration of the use of harmonics, double-stopped trills, and recourse to widely spaced chords based on Paganini's remarkable ability to stretch vast distances across the fingerboard.
-- Michael Jameson
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