It’s not something I set out to investigate, Caprice No. 24 for violin by Niccolò Paganini. Paganini was an Italian violinist whose life straddled the 18th and 19th centuries. His skill was so formidable that some believed he had made a pact with the devil. Others believed it was his mother who sold him out.
Think about that. Why would people believe such a thing? Yeah, they were superstitious, but still, why believe that Paganini’s skill must have been beyond the merely human?
Paganini composed 24 caprices, as they were called, for unaccompanied solo violin. The 24th one, the last, is the best known. From Wikipedia:
Caprice No. 24 in A minor is the final caprice of Niccolò Paganini's 24 Caprices, and a famous work for solo violin. The caprice, in the key of A minor, consists of a theme, 11 variations, and a finale. His 24 Caprices were probably composed in 1807, while he was in the service of the Baciocchi court.
It is widely considered one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the solo violin. It requires many highly advanced techniques such as parallel octaves and rapid shifting covering many intervals, extremely fast scales and arpeggios including minor scales, left hand pizzicato, high positions, and quick string crossings. Also, there are many double stops, including thirds and tenths.
There you have it, “one of the most difficult pieces ever written.” The point of such pieces is that they ARE difficult, but a virtuoso makes playing them seem effortless.
Well, if you are talented – whatever that is – and you’ve spent years and years practicing, as Paganini certainly did, then, yes, such pieces are effortless. Almost. They are effortless – if that’s the right word, and I’m not sure that it is – if and only if you practice every day. Otherwise your skills deteriorate and at some point even the most heroic effort won’t get you through the piece.
Simply making it through the piece, that’s one thing. Making it appear easy, that’s another. THAT’s what gets you rewarded. As for music, it seems to me that the musical value of these caprices, these bonbons as they are sometimes called, is slight. They are not even remotely comparable to a major concerto or sonata or, for that matter, a Charlie Parker tune (see my recent post, Kids and Music 5: Kwak DaKyung, Jazz Trumpeter [Born to Groove]). They were created for virtuoso display and simply do not have the musical substance needed to subordinate virtuosity to musical expressiveness.
Fun? Yes. Substantial? Alas, no.
Cheap thrills, that’s what they are. Nothing wrong with that, but accept them for what they are. Have fun working on them and performing them.
Ratcheting up technical capacity
This post is about the influence this piece, and (many) others like it, have had on subsequent instrumental technique. Once Paganini had composed and performed these pieces other violinists figured out how to perform them and thus the overall level of technical accomplishment rose. Violinists got better and better.
What particularly interests me, however, is what happened when other instrumentalists got ahold of the piece – and others like it.
All instruments have their characteristic affordances, the opportunities they offer the player for musical realization and expression. Some instruments can play only one note at a time; others can play several. Some instruments don’t sound strongly defined pitches, many but by no means all percussion instruments. And some instruments are more flexible than others; that is to say, it is relatively easy to move from note to note over wide intervals on the instrument and to do so rapidly.
The violin is very flexible and has a wide range, though not at wide as the piano. While it is primarily a single note instrument, it is possible to play two, three, and even four notes at a time on it. That’s one of the things Paganini did, extend the capacity of violin technique to play two, three, and four notes.
What happens when instruments with quite different affordances (attempt to) play music originally created to extend violin technique? That’s what we’re going to look at.
Violin – Jascha Heifetz
Heifetz was one of the great violinists of the previous century, some say he was the best since Paganini. I’m in no position judge violin technique – I’ve never even held a violin, much less attempted to play one – so I’m in no position to second guess such judgments. I’m content to take them at face value.
Here he is performing Caprice No. 24. Notice that’s he’s accompanied by piano. I don’t know who wrote that part, but it wasn’t Paganini. Since we’re looking at instrumental technique, watch carefully. Fortunately we even get a close-up of his left hand as it performs a very difficult pizzicato passage (plucking the strings) with the left hand starting at roughly 3:51.
Marimba – Naoko Takada
The marimba is a very different kind of instrument. Look at the size. Takada has to move her whole body from side to side to play it. She strikes the keys with whole-arm movements. But she doesn’t need the intricate finger control necessary for the violinist’s left hand. Think of the problems involved in precisely targeted large movements of the sticks, especially at soft volume levels. Note, however, that she can play several notes simultaneously.
Great playing, though it seems to me that some passages don’t quite flow together.
Trombone – Peter Steiner
I do know something about brass playing. I’m a semi-virtuoso trumpet player and I’ve also played the valve trombone. The basic problem in playing a brass instrument is creating and sustaining a sound. That’s trivial for violin, though controlling the sound is not. Creating sounds on a marimba is easy as well, though there is no way to sustain a pitch other than using a tremolo (which, I would imagine, is tricky).
Brass instruments are not flexible. The further two notes are apart, the more difficult it is to move from one to the other. Rapid wide interval jumps (e.g. 1:54 ff.) are very difficult. The trombone slide adds another dimension of difficulty. While it allows you to get any pitch you want, that’s not what you want here. You want to get exactly the right pitches. This also makes rapid runs very difficult to execute as the pitches tend to run together, forcing the trombonist to use a technique called double-tonguing. Don’t worry about just what it is, it IS difficult.
Embouchure control (lips and jaw) is critical, as is breath control. That, and not slide movement, is what makes wide-interval jumps so difficult. This, obviously, is quite different from both violin and marimba.
This is heroic playing, working ferociously against the inherent tendencies of the instrument. But also, I fear, a bit ponderous for a cappricio.
Trumpet – Alison Balsom
Almost everything I said about the trombone applies to the trumpet. Difficult to sound and consequently inflexible. However, the trumpet is played with valves, not a slide. Thus instead of large movements of the fight arm and hand you have intricate movements of the fingers on the right hand. Because the trumpet is a smaller instrument than the trombone the resulting performance is, it seems to me, more successful, not so ponderous.
Balsom is a superb soloist.
But why is every shot in very soft focus and diffused lighting?
Brass Quintet – Vladimir Mezentsev, French Horn Soloist
Now we have four different brass instruments, two trumpets, a trombone, a tuba, and a French horn. More heroic playing all around.
The tuba is even more ponderous than the trombone (I assure you there are tuba players who can execute very rapid, albeit heavy, renditions of “Flight of the Bumblebee”). As for the French horn, for technical reasons we need not go into, it is an extraordinarily treacherous instrument to wrangle. Mezentsev is insane to be playing this.
But really, guys, come on. We know you’re fabulous players but did you have to, really? Perhaps that’s why they threw in a bit of Rachmaninoff. Starting at 4:33 they toss in a passage from his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” (from Caprice 24) as though to say their tongues were in their cheeks the whole time.
That boomy hall didn’t do them any favors.
Electric Guitar – The Commander-In-Chief & Craig Ogden
Now we’re getting somewhere. Irony, that’s the way to play it. Dig the Commander's military-themed threads, not to mention the high-heels. Adds a bit of an S&M vibe to the performance, which is more than appropriate for this piece. She got her start in metal.
The Commander-in-Chief performs the caprice as a duet. Always cool, plus it gives us insight into the music. Paganini’s piece is really “Dueling Banjos” for solo fiddle. Dig the unison at 2:53 and after. That’s skill. There’s some very interesting interplay further on. This is a wonderful performance.
I leave it as an exercise for the reader to ponder the affordances of the guitar, both acoustic and electric.
Gypsy Style – Florian Cristea and Friends
Now this is fun. This is music. They don’t perform Paganini’s caprice in the most direct sense of the word. The fiddler starts with the caprice and then the group uses it here and there and however as the basis for the rest of the performance. Their humor, virtuosity, and musicality all but redeems Paganini’s piece from all the excesses visited upon it over the years.
Psst! You know what? I'd love to hear the Commander-in-Chief jam with these guys.
Also, if the performance makes you laugh for joy, they're doing it right.