The spell of caprice No. 24

Paganini 24 is not a piece you listen to but one you obsess about. Its theme alone hits you like this orchestral crescendo:

So many composers and musicians have been obsessing about this five-minute capriccio (1817) that one may write a short history of Western music (classical and beyond) over the last two centuries just by tracing the myriads of variations on Paganini’s original eleven variations. Why has it been so irresistible?

The confidence of the piece is manifest in its harmonic mastery, tonal simplicity, and rhythmic swagger. But I have come to appreciate two additional factors. First, this is a highly self-assertive theme for technical variations. It is an invitation to virtuosity, to a musical skill that had only recently emerged in the early 19th century. Second, the first to accept the challenge and start the conversation by writing his own variation was Liszt, the first and arguably greatest virtuoso. Thus I suggest that the piece works like a masterful painting (say, Munch’s “Scream”), poem (Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”), short story Gogol’s “Overcoat”), or song (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I put a spell on you“) that is created as a theme proposed for variations, as an agonistic challenge to fellow artists that invites the mobilization of multiple codes of the art/trade for its competitive repetition/difference.

While obsessing about the post-compositional history of Pag 24, I have come up with eleven of its numerous dazzling instances in roughly chronological order. Since in this blog I am always listening with pianist Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, they are all for piano solo or with orchestra.

Liszt: Grandes Etudes de Paganini, S.141, No.6

Brahms: Paganini Variations, Op. 35, Book 1

Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

Richard Grayson improvises Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in the style of Debussy

Ignaz Friedman: Studies on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 47b

Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme of Paganini (piano & orch.)

Alexander Rosenblatt: Paganini Variations  

Robert Beaser: Pag-Rag

James Mobberley: Capricious Invariance

Marc-André Hamelin: Variations on a Theme by Paganini

Fazil Say: Paganini Variation

February 1, 2018


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