Picture an eight-year-old Julia Fischer, sitting in a church pew with the music in her lap, listening to the 24 Caprices by Niccolò Paganini for the first time, played by Austrian violinist Thomas Zehetmair.
This scene is described in the liner notes for Julia's recently-released recording of the Paganini 24 Caprices. After seeing that performance, she resolved to learn them all, a task which she completed by the age of 14. As most of us fiddle players know, this takes considerable work and will – these pieces are arguably the most fiendishly difficult in all the violin literature. Now at age 27, she has re-thought the Caprices for their musical value; in her words, "I approached them as I would a Mozart concerto."
© Uwe Arens
I was curious about her approach to these pieces, and about how her feelings about them had changed over the years. Julia took some time to answer my questions about the Caprices for V.com readers, to talk about their challenges, and to share her journey with this music that is so important to the violin repertoire.
Laurie: How did you initially approach practicing the Caprices and solving the technical challenges, when you first started them?
Julia: I started with Caprice No 17, when I was 10. The octaves are certainly the challenge of this caprice - and my hand was still quite small, although I was playing a 4/4 violin already. I remember that I practiced the part several times a day, not much at once, maybe always for 10 minutes in order to go easy on my left hand. After 2 months or so, I played it for the first time in concert. After that, I played Caprice 13 and 14. Those are of course much easier and I learned them quite quickly, although my teacher was very unhappy with the hard sounds of my chords in 14. She made me practice it, holding my right hand as a fist. Sounds funny, but it's true. I am trying to remember the order I learned them; it was approximately: 17, 13, 14, 6 (I had a very bad trills as a kid and wanted to play Devil's Trill when I was 12. So I had to learn 6 beforehand) 1, 24, 2, 5 (original bowing, if there is the question...), 11, 20, 7, 4, 10, 12, 16, 3, 8, 15 and then the rest.
Laurie: Many feel that the Caprices are just virtuoso showpieces, but you clearly approach them in a musical way. How do you keep perspective on the musical nature of these pieces while also overcoming their considerable technical challenges?
Julia: I think it helps a lot that I learned most of them as a child. When I practiced number 2 as a child, I certainly didn't look for a musical depth in it. But 10 years later, when I came back to it and when it actually felt relatively easy, then I had time to look at the musical side of it. There aren't that many Caprices which don't look musical immediately. Eight maybe, 12, and in the beginning 2. It's a challenge to play those musically, certainly. But there are also great musical pieces - 24, 17, 21, 4 (I think 4 is the hardest).
Laurie: Do you have a preferred edition of the Caprices? Which do you recommend using?
Julia: I used Galamian when I was a kid and changed to Henle later, since in general I am not a great fan of Galamian-fingerings (certainly because I was brought up in the American violin school, so it feels always a bit weird to my fingers), so I have to change so much. Henle has a Urtext version with absolutely no fingerings. I think that's very helpful, especially when you want to find musical ideas in the music. For example number 12, it's great fashion to play a lot of this caprice in very high positions - but that makes it just much more uncomfortable, and sounds worse. When you just take "logical" fingerings, it suddenly isn't that difficult any more.
Laurie: Which caprices do you feel have the most unusual kinds of techniques, and did you find any interesting ways for practicing and solving those techniques in the course of your work on these Caprices?
Julia: Bowing number 5. Every violinist who is reading this will agree. Except for those who have a Philip Hirschhorn-gene. It helped me a lot to learn first the study Number 1 from Wieniawski's Ecole moderne - same bowing, just less difficult. But I must admit that I practiced it at least a year when I was about 14 or so.
Laurie: Which do you use most frequently as encores? Do you have a favorite?
Julia: Actually number 2 is most often my encore - I simply know it so well, and nobody else plays it as an encore. But I of course love 24, too!
Laurie: How is it different, playing all 24 Caprices as a cycle, as opposed to playing just one or two as an encore piece? How would you describe the musical journey, of playing all of them as a cycle?
Julia: When you play them in a cycle you have to pay much more attention to the musical differences of the caprices - the audience shouldn't be bored after a few caprices and think it's all the same. If you just play, for example, 13 today and, let's say, 19 next week, it doesn't matter if the atmosphere is very similar. In the cycle, you have to find the differences.
Laurie: Is there a logical ordering to the keys across the 24 caprices?
Julia: I was hoping to find it, but I didn't...
Laurie: What are your thoughts on Paganini the man, artist and composer? What can you tell about him from these Caprices?
Julia: I think he was a very optimistic man. And at least at certain times of his, life he must have been a happy man. Not deeply philosophical, but simply happy to play for other people.
Laurie: When was the first time that you performed all 24 Caprices together?
Julia: When I did the recording. Though at home (for my mom) when I was around 14 or 15.
Laurie: I understand that you learned Caprice 17 first; which are the best Caprices to start with, in your opinion?
Julia: Depends on the age of the player. 13, 14, 16 and 20 are probably most suitable.
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