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Song Stories: The Paganini Legacy

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Nicolò Paganini, half-length portrait, standing, facing front, holding violin. Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique, 1780-1867, artist.

The violin virtuoso Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840) was a 19th-century rock star. His performances were described as “demonic,” and he was often referred to as a “sorcerer” or a “wizard.” The bowings in his music often required the performer to throw the bow at the string, as if the player is attacking their instrument. Paganini altered the course of music by inventing the cult of the performer, carrying his own legacy beyond the 19th century to the modern virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.

Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin were published in 1820, but were likely composed between 1801 and 1807. They were written in the form of etudes, with each number exploring different skill sets and techniques, such as rapid arpeggios and scales, double-stopped trills, and extremely fast switching of positions and strings.

The Caprice No. 24 is one of the most frequently quoted melodies in all of western classical music. It has inspired everyone from Johannes Brahms to rocker Steve Vai. The question is…why? What makes a melody inspiring, unforgettable, and timeless? What could have led Rachmaninoff, Benny Goodman, and Franz Liszt to sustain the Paganini legacy?

One possible explanation is the flexibility and sustainability of the etude. In 2015, pianist Christopher McKiggan commissioned seven composers to write new variations for piano based on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for his project entitled “Paganimania.” He described the theme as “malleable.” The melody moves within a harmony that remains with the listener even when the melodic line stops. This impression leaves the listener expecting more, and composers have provided their own attempts to fill that need over the years. This repetition of a harmonic structure, also referred to as “ground bass,” is a musical form that has been used by composers for centuries.

Nicolò Paganini, 1782-1840; full, standing, playing violin. Library of Congress Music Division Washington, D.C. cph.3a43600

Another reason composers were inspired by Paganini comes from the mythology of Paganini himself. As a performer, he was worshipped hysterically, became wealthy, and is still remembered in great esteem. Before him, even the most talented, charismatic and successful musicians were quickly forgotten upon their passing. Composers have sought to re-create Paganini’s allure through writing complex variations that challenge the performer’s virtuosity, concentration, and stamina.

While the best-known sets of variations of the Caprice No. 24 are versions by Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt, there are numerous others that deserve attention. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations (1977) for cello and rock band was written for his younger brother, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, and was later arranged for cello and orchestra. Skip Martin’s re-creation, Caprice XXIV, was written for another Paganini-like virtuoso—clarinetist Benny Goodman. Witold Lutoslawski composed Variations on the Theme by Paganini for two pianos in 1941, and re-set the piece for piano and orchestra in 1978. George Rochberg composed 50 Caprice Variations for solo violin in 1970, and even borrowed from Variations on the Theme of Paganini (composed by Brahms) at certain places in the work.

Many performers have attempted to re-create the Paganini legacy on other instruments. The first recording of the 24 Caprices on viola was made in 1960 by Emanuel Vardi, on which Vardi plays the caprices as Paganini wrote them (with the exception of transposing them down a fifth). Marina Piccinini transcribed the caprices for flute, replacing the violin’s finger octaves with harmonics, and using flutter tonguing for contrasting color. Steve Vai used Paganini’s caprices as an inspiration for “Eugene’s Trick Bag” for the 1986 film Crossroads, appearing in the film as “the devil’s guitar player” in the final “guitar duel” scene.

The legacy of art can often be measured by what it has inspired. Whether it’s the countless references to a “Shining City on a Hill” that are used in many speeches, or the tragedy of love and loss that permeates the work of music, dance, and theater throughout history, Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 is a work that has only grown in stature over its 200-year influence on musical culture.

If you liked reading about Paganini’s musical legacy, then please enjoy these selections from the NLS music section that relate to this blog.

Talking Books

Dangerfield, Marcia. The Narrated Life History of Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Nicolò Paganini. Brief surveys of the life and music of Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Nicolò Paganini with music by the composers in the background. (DBM03397)

Braille Music

Brahms, Johannes. Variations on a Theme by Paganini, op. 35, book 1. Includes 24 of 28 variations. For piano in bar by bar format. (BRM06184)

Liszt, Franz. Grosse Etüden von Paganini. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM35859)

Paganini, Nicolò. 24 Caprices for violin, op. 1. For solo violin in paragraph format. (BRM26116)

____ The Bell. For accordion in bar over bar format. (BRM22188)

____ La Caccia. For violin and piano in bar by bar format. (BRM21809)

____ La Campanella: from the Second Concerto, op. 7 for violin. Solo violin part only. Line by line format. (BRM26025)

____ Caprice no. 24 from 24 Capricci. For solo violin in single line format. (BRM32859)

____ Carnival of Venice: with Variations. For accordion in bar over bar format. (BRM06702)

____ Mòto Perpetuo. For violin and piano in section by section and bar over bar formats. (BRM20093)

Rachmaninoff, Sergei. Eighteenth Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. For solo piano in bar over bar format. (BRM20428)

____ Rhapsodie, op. 43: sur un Thème de Paganini. For piano and orchestra. Arranged for two pianos in bar over bar format. Orchestral accompaniment is arranged for the second piano. (BRM23101)

Schumann, Robert. Études d’Après des Caprices de Paganini, op. 10. For piano in paragraph format. (BRM21803)

Thalben-Ball, George Thomas. Variations on a Theme by Paganini: a Study for the Pedals. For organ, pedals only, in single line and bar over bar formats. (BRM28897)

Vieuxtemps, Henri. Hommage à Paganini, op. 9. For violin in paragraph format. (BRM20709)

Large Print

Agay, Denes. The Joy of Piano. Includes Caprice no. 24 by Paganini. (LPM00146)


For further reading about other violin virtuosi, please enjoy this previous NLS blog post.

Learn more about the “Paganini Project” at the Library of Congress by reading this blog post from 2013.

To borrow any materials mentioned above, you can download them from BARD, call us at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2, or email us at [email protected]. You can visit our website at any time to learn more about the services that NLS provides.

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