Program 3
"The Tune that Drove Composers Wild, Part 1"

MUSIC: Paganini's 24th Caprice [Telarc CD-80398] [Up then under

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. We'll explore Paganini, his 24th Caprice, and some of the compositions it inspired in this and the next edition of Compact Discoveries. I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman. I call this program "The Tune that Drove Composers Wild, Part 1."

MUSIC: [fades out]

Niccolò Paganini was one of the most extraordinary people in the entire history of music. The famous 19th Century French composer Hector Berlioz called him a comet. Berlioz wrote: "Never did a flaming star burst more abruptly on the firmament of art or excite in the course of its universal ellipse more astonishment mixed with a sort of terror before vanishing forever."

The program notes for the James Ehnes recording of all 24 Paganini Caprices on the Telarc label says that there has never been anything quite like Paganini. "He was rumored to be a murderer, a seducer, an escaped convict. One report held that three hundred of his auditors were 'in the hospital suffering from over-enchantment.' A satirist thought his incomparable virtuosity 'enough to make the greater part of the fiddling tribe commit suicide.' The celebrated opera composer Meyerbeer once followed Paganini on his travels through northern Europe in an attempt to penetrate the mystery of his powers. Otherwise perfectly reasonable and sober Englishmen poked him with their canes as he walked the streets of London, just to see if he was really made of flesh and blood. Paganini won his Stradivarius in a wager that he could play at first sight a piece that no other violinist could play with preparation."

It was Paganini, in effect, who wrote the first set of variations on his own tune, because the 24th Caprice, short as it is, is itself in theme and variations form. Let's listen to the whole piece now -- it takes less than four and a half minutes -- as performed by James Ehnes. [2:51]

MUSIC: Caprice No. 24 in A Minor, Opus 1, for Solo Violin by Paganini [Telarc CD-80398, Band 24]

The Caprice No. 24 in A Minor, Opus 1, for Solo Violin by Niccolo Paganini, as performed by violinist James Ehnes. It is from a Telarc CD which includes the other 23 Paganini Caprices as well.

The 24th Caprice is the tune that has driven other composers wild ever since. The first famous composer to write variations on the Paganini theme was Franz Liszt. His Grandes Études de Paganini, written in 1851, some 30 years after the original, took on six pieces by Paganini, transcribing them for piano. The sixth piece, which is a little over five minutes long, is called Theme and Variations in A Minor. [7:57]

MUSIC: Theme and Variations in A Minor from Grandes Études de Paganini by Franz Liszt, performed by Barbara Nissman [Newport Classic NPD 85538, Band 8]  [13:04]

The sixth piece in Franz Liszt's Grandes Études de Paganini was performed by Barbara Nissman on the piano, from a Newport Classic compact disc.

You are listening to "The Tune that Drove Composers Wild" on Compact Discoveries. I'm Fred Flaxman. And the tune was the 24th Caprice by Nicolo Paganini. Franz Liszt was the first in a long line of composers who took on this tune. He did that in 1851. In 1866, fifteen years later, Brahms wrote two books of variations on this same Paganini tune. Again, this was for the piano.

In a moment we're going to listen to highlights from Book 1 of Brahms' Paganini Variations, as performed on a London compact disc by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. But first I want to read to you what Thibaudet wrote about this piece:

"It's an incredibly difficult work, a real challenge. 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." [14:21]

MUSIC: Brahms's Paganini Variations [London 444 338-2, Bands 1-9 and15]  [24:17]

Two excerpts from Brahms' Paganini Variations, Book One, as performed by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

You are listening to "The Tune that Drove Composers Wild" on Compact Discoveries. I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman.

In case you've just joined us, you've missed the original tune as written by Paganini, the version for piano by Franz Liszt and the first book of Paganini Variations by Johannes Brahms. On the other hand, if you stay with me, I'll treat you to the most famous of the pieces inspired by Paganini's 24th Caprice, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43, by Sergei Rachmaninov.

But first, since we are playing these variations on the Paganini theme in the order that they were written, I'll play for you the Third Caprice of Three Caprices on Themes of Paganini by the Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski. This piece is a real compact discovery! I'm very surprised that it isn't better known. In this EMI Classics recording, Thomas Zehetmair [Tsay-het-mire] is the violinist with pianist Silke Avenhaus. [25:28]

MUSIC: Szymanowski: Third Caprice of Three Caprices on Themes of Paganini [EMI Classics 7243 5 55607 2 8, Band 9] [32:16]

That was the Third Caprice of Three Caprices on Themes of Paganini by Karol Szymanowski. Thomas Zehetmair was the violinist with pianist Silke Avenhaus. You are listening to "The Tune that Drove Composers Wild" on Compact Discoveries.[32:32]

[Optional one-minute break not included in timings]

Now for the most famous set of variations on this tune by Paganini - those penned by Sergei Rachmaninov in 1934.[32:42]

MUSIC: Rachmaninov's 18th Variation from his Rhapsody on Theme of Paganini plays in the background during the following paragraph, and fades out afterwards. [Naxos Historical 8.110602]

According to my friend Karl Miller at the University of Texas, the famous 18th variation is simply the opening of the Paganini tune inverted, with Rachmaninov's very special harmonies added, of course. Rachmaninov joked that he wrote that variation for his manager, meaning that he thought his manager would be pleased that the work had a - quote -big tune - unquote. It sure did! It's been used many times in movies ever since it was written in 1934, including "Somewhere in Time."

As you can imagine, I had many recordings to choose from, but I thought it might be a very special treat for you to hear this piece with the composer at the piano, especially since Rachmaninov was an outstanding pianist as well as a composer. Thanks to Naxos Historical Recordings, the noise has been virtually eliminated from this 1934 recording and the music comes through very well, although it is obviously not a modern, stereo, all-digital production. But I don't know anyone who can play this piece any better than the composer. [33:59]

MUSIC: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov [Naxos Historical 8.110602] [55:56]

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninov. The composer was at the piano and the Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The recording was made on December 24, 1934. I'm Fred Flaxman and you have been listening to Part 1 of a two-part program on "The Tune that Drove Composers Wild" on Compact Discoveries.

I've played for you the original tune, which was written by Paganini in 1820, the Liszt transcription for piano from 1851, highlights from Brahms' Paganini Variations, Book 1, from 1866, the Szymanowski variations from 1918, and the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from 1934.

What, you might ask, could possibly be left that requires another hour of terrific music based on this same theme? Well, there's Boris Blacher's most famous work, recorded several times since it was written in 1947. There's Andrew Lloyd Webber's Variations from 1977. And there's Witold Lutoslowski's Paganini Variations from 1978. Although this is all 20th Century music, it is highly rhythmic, tuneful and accessible. So I hope you'll be with me again for Part 2 of "The Tune that Drove Composers Wild" next time on Compact Discoveries. [57:27]

MUSIC: Excerpt from Variations by Andrew Loyd Webber under the following [Philips 420 342-2, Band 2]

I invite you to share your reactions to Compact Discoveries with me. My e-mail address is That's All that with no spaces.

Compact Discoveries is made possible by the members of WXEL-FM and the financial support of Barry and Florence Friedberg, Maurice and Thelma Steingold and an anonymous donor. The program was written and produced by your guide, Fred Flaxman, and is a production of WXEL-FM, West Palm Beach, Florida.


  ©2009 Compact Discoveries