Some of the furthest cornerstones; and a real Mount Everest in violin playing are the twenty-four Caprices by Niccolό Paganini. They were exponents for Paganini’s new innovations in technical skills and challenges for the violin.
Taking up literally the entire fingerboard of the violin through many positions and bow techniques, they serve as Etudes- which were more popularly developed for the piano most notably by Czerny, Chopin and Liszt.
These also take their place as some of the most challenging pieces written for the instrument. With stretches sometimes beyond a tenth, many violinists would avoid these pieces simply because just not being physically able to reach these stretches and would rather continue without causing physical damage to their hand!
Paganini himself was noted to have had Marfan syndrome which gave his hands extraordinary flexibility that would render it quite easy to reach even longer ranges in one hand span. This advantage would suit these pieces and they would suit him with his technical and physical capabilities.
The Caprices were written from 1802 to 1917, with the publisher Ricordi first publishing them in 1820. Though they serve to practice Paganini’s Skills, he had dedicated each Caprice to many artists across Europe. Violinists from Norway’s Ole Bull, Poland’s Liplinsky, Moravia’s Ernst, Germany’s Hermann, Spohr, Bohrer and Romberg, the Franco-Belgian school Vieuxtemps, Alard, Lafont, Rode, Kreutzer, Haumann and Artôt plus Italy’s Bazzini, Austria, Sivori, Alliani, Cignami.
A long line of violinists which goes to show the influence of Paganini’s Caprices as a crucial part of the violin repertoire. It spanned across many major violin schools around Europe.
It doesn’t stop there- Paganini dedicated two of his Caprices to pianists Thalberg and Liszt. He was a huge influence on the composer Liszt and many other composers after him through to rock, metal bands, jazz musicians and composers today.
The Caprices themselves give a lot of clues into the composer’s prowess as a violinist and composer.
First of all, as a performer, he was heavily dedicated to pioneering new skills and pushing the boundaries of violin playing that were never thought of before.
The only blind spot here is because he was focused on developing the violin part (the caprices are all solo and unaccompanied) the concertos he wrote had orchestral accompaniments that didn’t quite develop as much from the Classical period. The Belgian violinist Ysaӱe had said Paganini’s accompaniments are very guitar-like. This is a funny and fitting comparison as Paganini was also a guitarist- more than likely he could have used his guitar to work out the harmonies and parts for the orchestra.
The first Caprice is the most evident of this as the whole Caprice relies on fixed chord positions of the fingers across all strings- almost a guitar translation into violin playing. The rest such as number 5 uses rapid ricochet all the way through and number 6 for playing a constant trill and melody at the same time. This shows the development of the Etude- which Chopin and Liszt had continued this idea of practising one particular technique recycled all the way through.
The most famous of the Caprices is number 24 in A minor- more recently used as a theme by Andrew Lloyd Webber and used as the theme of a TV show the South Bank Show.
Chopin quoted the Caprice in his Krakowiak Rondo. Liszt had recreated pieces for the piano- 6 Paganini Caprices based on Paganini's’ themes. Rachmaninoff also had many appearances of it in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini where he does some clever tricks to reverse all the intervals of the 24th caprice theme turning it into another theme entirely. Thrash Metal musician The Great Kat and guitarist Steve Vai have done electric guitar versions of the Caprices and Fazil Say a more Jazz piano version of this Caprice. The 24th Caprice was dedicated to none other than Paganini himself.
An extra piece of advice:
One of the most exciting parts, and most difficult to choose, is repertoire to play for a recital. With a large range of possible composers and a lot of great music, we even have to compromise on our favourite pieces just to get a good balance and fit a limited time slot.
One popular view is to go with favourite composers or fir it around a theme such as 20th-century composers or music from a tradition or country. A good balance of music from the 4 major periods is a nice balance to have and it can introduce the audience to new music across different styles. Have a ‘Neo-Classical’ theme could prove tough to choose if there are composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Barber, even Debussy and Ravel and many more.
Currently, I’m making some decisions for a kind of Introduction theme to violin and piano by choosing pieces representing different kinds of playing. From the polyphony of Bach; right through to the colourful effects by Debussy, Ravel and de Falla. Some darker themes by Chopin and Ravel and a range of composers from the French violin tradition that took from Bach to ‘Impressionism’ and Neo-Classical. Finding music is easy but choosing it is a difficult yet rewarding part.