The Tune That Drove Composers Wild

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 2001.


In 1820 an Italian violinist, unknown outside of his native country at the time, published a tune that was destined to drive audiences -- and composers -- wild ever since. His name: Niccolo Paganini. The piece: the last of 24 caprices for solo violin. These capricci, which explore virtually every aspect of violin technique, are still the supreme test of the abilities of any violinist.

The first composer to write a set of variations on this tune was Paganini himself. In fact his Caprice No. 24 in A Minor. Opus 1, is a set of 11 variations on his short, original theme. Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Szymanowski, Lutoslawski, Andrew Lloyd Webber and others wrote their own variations on this Paganini theme. Although Paganini's original caprice takes Canadian violinist James Ehnes only about four minutes to play (Telarc CD-80398), those who were smitten by Paganini's tune usually kept the variations going much longer.

Brahms, for example, wrote 28 variations on this theme which takes French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet over 22 minutes to play (London 444 338-2).

"It's an incredibly difficult work, a real challenge," Thibaudet admits. "Not many pianists would dare to play them in public. It's an extremely physical piece, demanding such power and control. It contains every imaginable difficulty. You get the feeling that Brahms set out to stretch the performer to the limits.... Once you've got to grips with this work, there won't be much left that your fingers can't get 'round."

Not that the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, by Rachmaninov, which also stretches the variations out for some 22 minutes, is so much easier to play. But at least the pianist has the help of an orchestra. This is undoubtedly the most well-known set of Paganini variations to today's audiences, especially the 18th variation, which was once made into a popular song.

Rachmaninov himself recorded his Rhapsody on Dec. 24, 1934, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The recording has been de-clicked, transfered to compact disc, and paired with the composer's performances of his Piano Concertos No. 1 and 4 on an inexpensive Naxos CD (8.110602). There are, of course, dozens of more recent recordings to choose from, mostly at higher prices, but none played with more authenticity or skill.

The most popular set of variations on this same Paganini tune, before Rachmaninov came out with his, was probably the Grande Etude de Paganini No. 6 in A Minor, the last piece from the set of six for piano by Franz Liszt, published in 1851. Italian pianist Marco Pasini plays the entire set in his "Tribute to Paganini" CD (Dynamic CDS 360), which also includes Paganini-inspired works by Hummel, Moscheles, Kuhlau, Busoni and Dallapiccola. Incidentally, the third piece in the Liszt set, La Campanella, is based on another Paganini theme which has become famous as a result of a number of composers writing variations on it.

I am very excited about two much more recent renditions of Paganini's 24th Caprice. They are both, as it happens, by Polish composers: Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) and Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994). The Szymanowski work, Three Paganini Caprices, Op. 40, for violin and piano, dates from 1918 but is definitely 19th Century in its romantic feel. The third piece is the one based on the 24th Caprice. It amazes me that this beautiful composition is not better known. I recommend the recording by violinist Thomas Zehetmair and pianist Silke Avenhaus (EMI Classics 7243 5 55607 2 8).

Lutoslawski's nine-minute-plus Paganini Variations, dating from 1978, might have been called Burlesque on a Theme by Paganini. Full of humor, energy, highly rhythmic and melodious, the piece is contemporary without being at all hard to appreciate. I recommend Naxos 8.556692 ("The Best of Lutoslawski"). The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Antoni Wit.

On May 17, 1977, Andrew Lloyd Webber lost a bet to his cellist brother Julian. As a result he had to write a piece for cello and rock band for him. This eventually became the 35-minute-long Variations on Paganini's 24th Caprice that wound up with Julian as soloist accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel on a Philips CD (420 342-2). Variations shows the composer's gift for beautiful melodies, humor, and fun, and is well orchestrated (by David Cullen). The work sounds much more like Lloyd Webber's Phanton of the Opera than it does like Paganini.

There has never been anyone quite like Paganini. He enjoyed playing tricks on his audiences, like performing the majority of a piece on one string after breaking the other three. He astounded music listeners with his unique techniques, made possible in part by a physical abnormality that gave him excessive flexibility in his joints.

He was the talk of the 19th Century musical world. One report held that 300 of his listeners were "in the hospital suffering from over-enchantment." A satirist wrote that his incomparable virtuosity was "enough to make the greater part of the fiddling tribe commit suicide." He was rumored to be a murderer, a seducer, even an escaped convict. His satanic appearance and seemingly superhuman playing gave rise to tales that he was in league with the devil.

There has never been anything like Paganini's 24th Caprice either. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, it is hard to think of a musical work that has been praised more often.


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