24 Caprices Nicolo Paganini By Itzhak Perelman
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Niccolo Paganini was born in Genoa on 27th October, 1782. His natural aptitude for the violin became apparent at an early age, and he had his first lessons on the instrument from his father, who was in the shipping trade but was an accomplished performer on the mandoline. The young Paganini subsequently had lessons with Giacomo Costa, maestro di cappella of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. He made his first public appearance in 1793, and at Costa's suggestion he then began to play solos regularly in church every Sunday - a discipline which he was to appreciate in later years. A period of study in Parma with Alessandro Rolla and Gaspara Ghiretti followed, and in 1797 Paganini, accompanied by his father, embarked on the first of his many concert tours. On his return to Genoa he wrote down his first compositions for his instrument. He spent the years 1801-4 in Tuscany, in comparative retirement, but devoting himself principally to composition (for the guitar as well as the violin), and between 1805 and 1813 he was, for much of the time, in the service of Elisa Bacciochi, sister of Napoleon and Princess of Lucca and Piombo (later Grand Duchess of Tuscany). From about 1813 onwards Paganini undertook a succession of concert tours, first in Italy, then in Austria, Germany, France and the British Isles. He spent just over a year in England (from June 1831 to June 1832), during which time he made a profit of fl7,000, and his business acumen - if not his mastery of the fiddle - was summed up in a contemporary pun which ran: "Who are these who pay five guineas, To hear this tune of Paganini's? - Echo answers - 'Pack o'ninnies'."
His last years were spent partly in Parma, partly in Paris (where he met Berlioz and, in January 1834, asked him to compose a work for him to play on his Stradivarius viola - the result of which commission being Harold en Italie, which Paganini never deigned to perform because "there was not enough for me to do"), and partly in the South of France. He died in Nice on 27th May 1840 of a disease of the throat from which he had been suffering for some years.
No musician had more fantastic stories to his name, and certainly none took less trouble to refute them. Many people seriously believed that he had been convicted of murder and that he had taught himself to play the violin with one string only while eking out a prison sentence, and it was almost common knowledge that he was in league with the devil (unlike an earlier violinist/composer - Tartini - who only dreamed about him), yet the maestro, who undoubtedly knew the value of good publicity, seems almost to have encouraged these and similar rumours to spread. As to his breathtaking command of his instrument there can be no doubt, legends or no: no violinist before him had displayed such a stunning degree of virtuosity, and there have been few since who could claim to have equaled him. The fact that he allowed only a few of his compositions to be published during his lifetime shows how jealously he guarded his secrets.
As we have seen, only a handful of Paganini's compositions were published during his lifetime; of those that were, the twenty-four Caprices, Op.l, which were probably inspired by the astonishing cadenza-like caprices in the twelve violin concertos that form Pietro Locatelli's L' Arte del Violino, Op.3, published in 1732, are by far the most important. They appeared in 1820, and are still the supreme test of any virtuoso violinist. They have exercised an extraordinary influence on later composers: Schumann based two sets of piano studies on them (and provided piano accompaniments for the originals); Liszt based his whole conception of virtuoso piano playing on them, as can be seen from the six Etudes d'execution transcendante d'apres Paganini and the twelve Etudes d'execution transcendante; and the celebrated No.24 - a theme with twelve variations - was the basis of Brahms's Paganini Variations Op.35, Rachmaninov's Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, Op.43, and Boris Blacher's Orchestervariationen, Op. 26. Inasmuch as they explore virtually every aspect of violin technique - legato, staccato, spiccato, tremolo, harmonics, trills, arpeggios, scales, left-hand pizzicato, and multiple-stopping (thirds, sixths, octaves and tenths) - the Caprices can be described as studies, though to treat them merely as technical exercises, however difficult they are to play, is hardly to do them justice. In many of the pieces, such as Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5,10, 12,16 and 22, a strong moto perpetuo element is noticeable, even though this may not always extend right through the movement. Several of the Caprices, such as Nos. 3, 8,11, 20, 22 and 23, have a slow opening, often in octaves, which reappears, whether literally or in modified form, at the end. No.6 is a remarkable study in tremolo; No.9 imitates the sound of flutes and horns; No.17 contains some terrifying octave semiquavers; Nos.12 and 13 are markedly chromatic; and No.24, as has already been pointed out, is a set of miniature variations.
-Robin Golding, 1972