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7 Composers' Variations on Paganin's 24th Caprice

Updated on October 10, 2019
Frances Metcalfe profile image

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Niccolo Paganini 1782-1840


Variations are essentially the ordered face of improvisation, J S Bach being one of the most famous for turning his hand (or fingers) to rustling up interesting detours for his audience to venture down. He was noted for doing this in church and would be castigated for distracting the congregation from devotion, instead lending an ear up to the organ loft where Bach was projecting his latest wizardry down the nave.

Improvisations wer a way of showing off your prowess on your chosen instrument. Variations were the written down versions that others of lesser vision could learn to display their skill, and they offered structure as opposed to a free flowing meander.

In the case of Paganini, a gauntlet was being thrown down. His variations are notoriously difficult, but by committing them to paper he was daring fellow violinists to not only grapple with them, but publically show what they were made of.

The theme is instantly recognisable, and it's one of those tunes that even if you've never heard it before, it's an instant hit.

Portrait of Paganini by Georg Friedrich Kersting

Oil on wood painting of Paganini, c1830 Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresdenhouse.
Oil on wood painting of Paganini, c1830 Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresdenhouse.

The Paganini 24th Caprice Theme


1. The Original Paganini 24th Caprice Variations

If we're considering the Paganini variations, then surely we should knock on the composer's own door itself.

The A minor caprice started out life as a set of variations in its own right. So simple is the tune, now one of the most recognised in the classical repertory, that it's relatively easy to work it into any fashion you like. It's sort of like being given a basic plotline to work your own characters into it, placing them in different scenarios, however the framework holding it all together remains constant.

The one saving grace for violinists is that the variations are in the key of A minor, a comfortable key that sits well under the fingers. The first phrase of four bars, repeated, is embedded in this A minor, but then moves upwards, steadily stepping downwards until it has looped back home, a perfect little arc on which to hang your baubles.

The stall, having been set out, can now be decorated, Paganini at the ready to rummage through the dressing up and jewellery boxes for every possible example of violin bling.

These include playing in simultaneous octaves, thirds and finger stretching tenths, jumping quickly from the bottom end of the violin to the top, notes played pizzicato in between those played with the bow - sounding quite absurd and whacky - and triple stopping (playing three notes of a chord all at once).

There is, mercifully, a stratospheric respite at variation 10, the most beautified of them all before the final powerhouse is launched with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from the virtuosic violinist.

James Ehnes is the wizard on this recording.

Nathan Milstein 1904-1992


2. Nathan Milstein. Paganiniana

As if Paganini's own variations weren't taxing enough, the eyebrow raising rendition by Ukrainian violinist Nathan Milstein takes us on a journey most violinist would rather leave to him.

Talk about having your technique well and truly under your belt (or chin). It's just astonishing to where Milstein pushes the boundaries without putting a finger wrong. He has absolute control over his instrument. Is Milstein is having a little jibe at Paganini's expense: anything you can do I can do better? Or perhaps it's one tribute from one virtuoso to another. Paganini expanded the technical limits of the violin in the early nineteenth century, and maybe Milstein was saying, just look how far we've come! Almost off the scale!

Sergei Rachmaninov 1873-1943

Rachmaninov seated at a Steinway piano, probably between 1910 and 1920.
Rachmaninov seated at a Steinway piano, probably between 1910 and 1920. | Source

3. Rachmaninov. Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini

Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini is one of Rachmaninov's most celebrated works, unashamedly romantic and blossoms like a blousy rose on the famous eighteenth variation.

It bursts forth with almost demonic passion, perhaps a reference to Paganini's alleged association with the devil, only to tease the listener - and the solo pianist - with scraps of the Paganini tune thrown about, before it all properly gets going.

As you would expect from a Paganini counterpart on the piano, the istrument is put through its paces, from butterfly delicate, cascades of water-falling notes to strong Russian bear, with the supporting cast of an very involved orchestra.

These Paganini variations have a grand overall structure. The work lasts a shade under 25 minutes, so you cannot stop after every variation as in the Paganini original; it would be totally disjointed, like jumping from one stepping stone to another and after 24 of those you'd feel the strain on your knees. Instead Rachmaninov divides his variations into run-on sections with breaks every so often, allowing you to catch your breath.

While all the variations are superbly inventive, changes of key away from what would be a tiring A minor all the way through are inevitably required, prompting Rachmaninov to explore Paganini in mellow mood or to follow a darker path. Echoes of The Isle of the Dead creep in before opening out into that wistfully lush and passionate eighteenth variation in 70% cocoa chocolate. The melody is turned upside down and transported into the major - D flat major in fact, sporting five flats, a long long way from A minor.

As if to shake off the indulgent reverie, the playful emerges, dancing and flirty, pushing the music on amongst the throng of punchy syncopation. Ever inventive, the excitement of the pianist rushing around the keyboard is exhilarating - every musician with an amazing technique at their fingertips wants to let rip every now and again. The switchback joyride thunders down steep rails, a feast of noise in your ears, and just as your think the hairs on the back of your neck cannot stand up any higher, Rachmaninov teases you one last time, and his majestic variations end with a tiny deft flick of the wrist, throwing away your hat.

Rachmaninov Plays Rachmaninov

The pianist Stephen Hough relates how Rachmaninov was so apprehensive about the difficulty of the last of the variations, abounding with leaps to worry the most agile gazelle, that he braced himself with a tot of crème de menthe beforehand. He'd have had to have been pretty nifty, mind you, to swig it down, there's not much time between the variations! But the story is only that, a story.

Witold Lutoslawsi 1913-1994

Lutoslawski at the piano at this home.
Lutoslawski at the piano at this home. | Source

4. Lutoslawski. Variations on a Theme of Paganini

Immensely satisfying, the quirkier Lutoslawski Variations on a Theme of Paganini are the lesser known B side, if you like, of the Rachmaninov. In reality it's double A, and they should be better known because they are such fun.

Originally composed for two for two pianos it was designed to be played in cafes in Poland during WWII and was first performed at the Aria café in Warsaw.1 What a way to build up an appetite!

Harmonically inventive it starts life as it means to go on, with a bit of cheek, and waves of melody stretched out before you, but also with acerbic hollow laughs at the circumstances into which the variations were born. There's also a hint of cat and mouse within the impish jesting, a reference maybe to the occupation of Lutowslawski's native Poland, in between moments of quiet contemplation.

Absolutely accessible, everyone is enjoying themselves in this exuberant recording, the totally engaged Stephen Hough, the orchestra and the audience, as you can hear from the reaction when Hough whips out the last octave finish.

Johannes Brahms 1833-1897

Signed photograph of Brahms, 1889.
Signed photograph of Brahms, 1889. | Source

5. Brahms. Variations on a Theme of Paganini

Brahms was very fond of writing a variation or two. The purely orchestral Haydn and Handel variations have been in the limelight for may years, and the ones by Paganini largely left under the bushel.

Unlike the original, Brahms repeats both sections. Where Brahms perhaps falls down is that the variations act as exercises for pianists and there isn't the visionary aspect of his orchestral variations masterpieces which are on a magisterial scale and move along with the assured grandeur of a monarch to their coronation.

Whilst some of the variations wander away from A minor within the relatively small number of bars to play with, they still begin and end for the most part within that constraint, only rarely daring to venture away from home.

At somewhere between 19 to 25 minutes of exhausting pianism with all the attendant stops and starts it's not the easiest ride for either the instrumentalist or the listener. Admittedly Brahms did divide the viariations into two books, but most performances combine them both. Clara Schumann, the concert pianist wife of composer Robert Schumann referred to them as "Hexenvariationen" (Witches Variation) on account of their difficulty..2

They are technically as difficult as anything Rachmaninov throws at the pianist and there are superb extracts of beauty and bravura, but there is the overriding sense that the Paganini theme is a convenient vehicle for putting the pianist through some very painful hoops.

To read more about classical music inspired by witches clink on the link.

Liszt transcribed the Paganini variations, as he did many other Paganini works, for the piano. He was celebrated as one of the great piano virtuosos of the nineteenth century, and his transcription leaves no doubt to his status as one of the greatest pianists of all time.

Eugene Ysayë 1858-1931

Photograph of Ysayë between 1915 and 1920.
Photograph of Ysayë between 1915 and 1920. | Source

6. Ysayë. Variations on Paganini's Caprice no 24

Ysayë may not be a household name to everyone but amongst violinists he is something of a wonder and was highly respected in his day. He wrote several solo violin sonatas in the style of Bach's and even quotes from them and they are played regularly in concerts.

He created his own violin Paganini variations which are highly enjoyable but he ensures that lyricism also has an essential place within all the showmanship. In other words it's not all bragging for the sake of it, which makes the flash all the more satisfying.

Andrew Lloyd Webber 1958 -

Andrew Lloyd Webber at Eurovision, 2009.
Andrew Lloyd Webber at Eurovision, 2009. | Source

7. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Variations

Variations came about as a bet. The football loving Lloyd Webber brothers had a wager concerning the London based Leyton Orient soccer team they support (Julian is such a devoted fan he named his daughter Jasmine Orienta). Andrew had bantered that Orient wouldn't pull either a draw or a win against Hull City out the bag to avoid relegation. Julian won and claimed his prize - a work for cello. Andrew replied with Variations based on the Paganini A minor Caprice.3

Lloyd Webber is famed for his success in the world of musicals and this work fits into the crossover genre, very entertaining and witty, and could be just the portal for anyone unsure about classical music - or indeed the cello - to have a listen and cast around for more of the same.

There are 23 variations and rather unusually, it begins with an introduction rather than laying out the tune that is to be subject to all the variations. The introduction establishes the forthcoming style we are to expect - a rock tribute, if you will, synthesizing the worlds of the classical genre and Lloyd Webber's highly successful musicals - Cats, Phantom of the Opera and the like, and those fabulous bands featuring worthies of the keyboard and guitar such as Rick Wakeman, Dave Gilmour and Mike Oldfield.

The variations are transformed through boogey woogey, jazz, the blues, dance numbers, including hornpipe, and melodies that could come out of songs from the Lloyd Webber shows, all over strong bass beats. Variation 4 was the musical face of ITV's South Bank Show.

Released from the intensity of the classical variations, Lloyd Webber's are easy listening, something lively to put on after a hard day at work, when preparing the evening meal. Obvious technical hoops are pushed into the background and the cello is only a small part of the whole mix, other instruments are handed as much prominence and it's not merely a parade of outrageous display.

For those not familiar with any of the Paganini variations knocking around, it's a firm stepping stone to delving into one of the classical counterparts. It's really not such a big stride.



2 Music-web International


© 2019 Frances Metcalfe


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