For Rachel Barton Pine, Nicolò Paganini's 24 Caprices are not just a set of virtuoso works that exist in their own universe, but they are very much grounded in the operatic style of the composer's time and place.
It's one reason why she called her latest album Bel Canto Paganini, named for the "beautiful singing" style popularized in Italy by opera composers such as Bellini and Rossini. In addition to the Caprices, she's included Paganini's "Nel Cor"; "Duet for One," Op. 6; "Caprice d'adieu" Op. 68; and a work written by Pine herself, called "Introduction, Theme and Variations on "God Defend New Zealand," inspired by Paganini.
Pine started listening to Paganini's caprices when she was six and played her first -- No. 24 -- at age 10. She has played the entire set in a single concert several times, including performances at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and at the Ravinia Festival.
Pine has long sought "to look past the technical element and find the music within each caprice," she said, speaking to me from Chicago earlier this spring. Certain harmonies in the caprices "are far more adventurous than his concertos or his accompanied virtuoso pieces," she said. And when it comes to melody, she has even sought the advice of a few Italian opera coaches, to tap into that operatic element.
We spoke about each caprice -- its challenges, its place in history, its story. Looking at his original music, Pine has concluded that many details which seem at first to be technical throw-downs are actually musically-inspired aspects of a thoughtful performance plan. They reveal Paganini not to be a show-off, but to be an artist.
With all the study she's done, she plans to one day release her own edition of the Caprices. Until then, a word about editions for us violinists: Pine warns us to be particularly wary of the International Edition. "It's rife with errors, not only bowings that have been changed, without acknowledgement, from what Paganini indicated, but tons of wrong notes! Wrong accidentals and everything you can think of, which is pretty bad," she said. Instead, she recommends getting at least one urtext edition, and then a variety of other editions to help with fingerings.
"The Barenreiter is actually great, as far as a clean copy, but depending on where you are in your journey with the violin, it might not be so practical to have no fingering suggestions, for something that wicked!" she said. "So the best thing to do is to have an urtext in front of you, to know what Paganini's dynamics were, or lack thereof, and what the original bowings were, and make sure you have all the correct notes. And then have one or more edited editions on hand, to find what fingerings work for you. Unfortunately Paganini's manuscript is pretty scribbly -- so you really need a printed edition of some sort."
On to our discussion of each caprice!
Caprice No. 1
"It's one of the shortest Caprices, but like many of them, it definitely pays homage to Paganini's predecessors, particularly Locatelli. That type of arpeggiation was not new to Paganini; it was something that had already been going on, but Paganini took it a step further."
"I use a transitional bow for this recording, and that's something I came to pretty late. I've owned an early Tourte for many years, since the time that I got my original-condition, Baroque Gagliano violin. I've used it with the Gagliano for classical repertoire at A=430, but I've never paired it with my modernized violin (the 1742 ‘ex-Bazzini ex-Soldat’ Guarneri del Gesu, a violin from the same maker and same year as Paganini’s famed ‘Il Cannone’). It just somehow never occurred to me."
"Transitional bows" are rather rare -- they were made for a brief period of time, between the era of Baroque bows and the era of modern bows, ushered in by the bowmaker François Tourte. That time, even though it was short, did happen to coincide with Paganini's time (1782-1840).
"I thought, Paganini used this other kind of bow, I wonder if that would make any difference on his unaccompanied repertoire, where if there are a few less decibels it doesn't matter," Pine said. "So I tried it, and it really solved everything. There was a little bit of getting used to it, but once I did, so many of these bow strokes were easier. Everything was clean, clear, the string crossings worked better. It solved so much."
"The sad thing is, there's no such thing as cheap Chinese-made transitional bows that you can get on Amazon -- so I can't advise everyone, 'Get yourself a transitional bow!'" she said. "There aren't even enough to go around, even if you can afford them. They're not cheap," as they are pretty much all antique.
The transitional bow is "lighter, and it's springier. The balance is different," Pine said. "It's definitely not like a Baroque bow at all, but it's also not like a modern bow. Closer to a modern bow; it's like a modified modern bow. It's very active, very clear. The notes just ping. It bounces so brilliantly, and farther up the bow. And it's not just the bounce point, but - for example in Mozart, when he has a long bow and a couple of spiccatos, then another long bow and a couple of spiccatos, and you wonder, "How can I spiccato at the tip and the frog?" The transitional bow actually does that!
"I had never tried it on Paganini techniques, and it was just a revelation," Pine said. "The nice thing about Caprice No. 1 with a transitional bow is that you don't have to force it. You don't have to use the muscular approach, which is really a more late-Romantic style anyway. You can use this Beethoven-era kind of approach, and let the bow string along and do its thing."
"When you go back to the modern bow, having had this journey from this other one, you might be able to replicate a little of this aesthetic," Pine said.
Though Paganini didn't conceive of the Caprices as a cycle to be performed in sequence, No. 1 nonetheless makes for a good starting point. "It's this brilliant flash," Pine said. "It's so short, and it's so vibrant. It really starts things off with a bang."
One thing to know about the Caprices: They are not ordered by level of difficulty. A few editions have been made, reordering the Caprices progressively, Pine said, but they aren't widely used. Generally, each student needs a different sequence, depending on their technical strengths and weaknesses. "We can all generally agree that 13, 14, 16 and 20 are among the easier Caprices, but oddly enough the first Caprice I ever studied was 24, because I happened to already have those kinds of things ready to go," Pine said. "I think it's best that each teacher personalize the order of the Caprices for each student."
Caprice No. 2
"This caprice intrigued me so much when I was a little girl," Pine said. "I liked to listen to Perlman's LP -- it's the one my mom happened to have bought. It was a bribe, for those nights when I didn't want to go to bed. She'd say, 'Just be a good girl and lie down and close your eyes -- I'll let you listen to your Paganini record!'"
"No. 2 always got me because there is such a mysterious quality to it," she said. "It's a more of a lyrical Caprice than people play it. When you play it in a more showy way, you lose something of its special personality. This one is in B minor, and there's something very intriguing about some of the harmonies that it passes through."
Caprice No. 3
"No. 3 is the Caprice that reminds you that Paganini had the 'advantage' of Marfan's disease -- not that you would wish it on anyone because it affects the internal organs and all kinds of yucky stuff," Pine said. "But, he had unnaturally flexible fingers. We think of 10ths as pretty stretchy...in Caprice 12 there are lots of 12ths, but in the middle of No. 3 it goes all the way down to a 13th (double-stop). You have to put your elbow all the way out to the side and push your hand, trying to reach that note."
"At the end of the first and last sections, he has these infamous double unison trills, and I actually can do those - it's weird. My fingers are not long, in fact they're on the short side, but I always tell people what's really important is the frog webbing between fingers. If you hold out the third and fourth fingers of your bow hand you can see what you're naturally born with. It's just skin, and skin can stretch endlessly. On my left hand I can stretch out to probably 160 degrees between my three and four, almost a straight line. That's from years of Schradieck and Sevcik and Dounis and all that good stuff. That's why I can reach those things, because my fingers are very stretchy in between the fingers. Mr. [Roland] Vamos guided me through all those exercises and I would do extreme Schradieck, taking the first couple pages and doing a finger pattern where I was stretching 1 1/2 steps between my three and my four or even up to two steps."
"Here's another secret: I practiced Paganini Caprices on the viola," she said. "I'm not a violist, I leave that to the experts -- but I consider myself a social violist, I love picking up the alto voice at chamber music parties. Since I had a viola on hand, I would sometimes do some of my etudes on viola, just for extra stretchiness. And I would sometimes try to practice the Paganini Caprices on it. I wouldn't always master them, but just by doing them, I would go back to the violin and it would seem easy by comparison. As long as you listen to your body and don't strain yourself, it really helps. It's like you get twice the usefulness of practicing in half the time!"
"It is challenging, to play all of those octaves, cleanly and in tune, and also to make a musical line. I find it one of the most challenging caprices -- not to play, but to make an effective musical statement with. To transcend the technique, make all those octaves be at the service of something bigger. And to also shape the middle section so it doesn't just sound like muddle."
Caprice No. 4
"No. 4 is one of the most substantive Caprices, musically," Pine said. "It's long, but it doesn't overstay its welcome. It's a great testament to Paganini as an artist. It shows you the more serious direction he might have gone, if he had lived during a different era. He was earning his living by appealing to the popular tastes, and he would write flashy variations on tunes people knew and loved.
"We think of the caprices for their technical amazingness, but if you set all that aside, compositionally they're so adventurous, in terms of the harmonic structures, the different characters, and the formal structures he used sometimes. If you think about Paganini preceding Lizst: what if he had continued along that path and taken it farther, instead of setting that aside and going in the more popular direction?
"But No. 4 is just such a satisfying Caprice. There's a lot of polyphony going on in those 32nd-note sections, with all those dastardly double-stops. Later on, in No. 8, there is also a lot of multiple-voice writing. In No. 4, there's definitely some -- I wouldn't say Bachian -- but there are a lot of inner voices being played with. Even the passages of 10ths serve a structural purpose, they aren't just for show. They have a musical line to them."
"Interestingly there's a fermata on the first note of the first and last sections," Pine said. "I listened to a couple of dozen recordings by well-known artists of different generations, in preparation for making my own recording, and I was surprised to discover that almost nobody pays attention to those fermatas. But they really add an extra level of drama, when you do them."
"No. 5 is the quintessential Caprice that all the rock guitarists love," she said. For example, Caprice No. 5 features in the 1980s movie, Crossroads, which starred Ralph Macchio (who also played the "Karate Kid"), a young guitar prodigy. "If you go to YouTube and search "Crossroads guitar battle" you find this moment from the movie." (at 1:00 - a battle with the devil.)
"The lick the kid plays that the devil can't quite manage is Caprice No. 5," Pine said. "The funny thing is that for guitarists, it's the lefthand fingers that are so difficult, but that's the least of the challenges when it comes for the violin."
The main challenge for violinists is Paganini's original bowing: ricochet, in groups of three down bows followed by one up.
"I always wonder why people perform it if they aren't going to do the original bowing," Pine said. "That is actually my signature Caprice for which I won all my international prizes -- whenever I did an international competition and there was a prize for the best Paganini Caprice, I won it for No. 5."
"I can't be proud of my ricochet, though, because it was something I was born with," she said. "There's always something you're pretty good at and always something you struggle with, and it's different for every person. The first time I tried to do down-bow ricochet, it was right there. As opposed to up-bow staccato, which I was absolutely not born with! I had to sweat and fight for months for every notch on the metronome!"
Caprice No. 6
"This is the Caprice that reminds you that all this technique Paganini used in the Caprices is not just circus tricks," Pine said. "Rather, he's using these effects on the violin to expand its tone colors and expressive range."
Performing No. 6, a violinist must trill through the entire duration of the caprice.
"It's a little long to be about 'I can trill, very impressively!'" Pine said. "After 30 seconds of that you think, 'Okay I get the point, now what?' So it's really about using the trills to create a very special atmosphere. Sort of like No. 2, but even more so: there's this amazing mood created with these very soft, left-hand tremolandos. I think of it as almost impressionistic, and very gorgeous."
Caprice No. 7
"I love the title of No. 7, which is shared by Nos. 15 and 23: 'Posato,'" Pine said. "'Posato' means 'sedate and dignified.' If you play those caprices with that virtuoso flair - that's not what he's telling us that he wants. All of them begin with melodic octaves, so there is clearly a particular type of character that he's indicating -- it's a very unusual marking, and he uses it three times in his cycle."
"Of course, the faster sections that follow those sedate and dignified octaves can be as virtuosic as you want," she said, "and that's a nice contrast to the outer section."
Caprice No. 8
"This is probably the least applause-generating of all the Caprices," Pine said. "It's a perfectly good musical composition, but it just doesn't have anything that's overtly showy. And yet, it's a real finger-twister; it's among the harder ones to master, in terms of practicing and preparing it. Then you don't get the credit for it!"
"No. 13, for example, is an easier Caprice, but has a very flashy effect so people think, 'Wow, that's really impressive!' No. 8, you sweat and struggle with it, and then people think, 'Oh, that was nice.' They don't realize, actually that was impressive!"
"No. 8 is a very pleasing piece of music, with a lot of multiple-voice writing. It's hard to make it fluid, to make it sing. Because it is quite awkward, you have to put in a lot of time, and you have to find enough in the music to motivate you to do that. It's one of the dark horses of the cycle, I think, but I always enjoy coming back to it."
Caprice No. 9
"Nine is justifiably one of the most popular of the caprices," Pine said. "It's his only one in rondo form, and the rondo section imitates a pair of flutes and a pair of horns -- kind of a rustic flavor."
"People think they need to play it with fire and they crash away at it, but that's clearly not what he wanted," she said. "You have to remember that Paganini was a contemporary of Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi, all the great Italian bel canto opera composers. In fact, Rossini said that if Paganini ever wrote opera, he'd 'put the rest of us out of business' -- a statement which attests to Rossini's high opinion of Paganini as a composer of melody. Those guys respected him as an artist, as a musical voice. It makes perfect sense that Paganini would want his music to be performed in a melodic way, not just the crash-and-burn approach."
Paganini included some bowings that people don't usually do -- "I think people just don't really understand what he wanted," Pine said. "It's in the B section: Up down, up-up-up, down-down-down, up-up-up...with all these triple-stops. People tend to play it: Up down, up-up-down, up-up-down... Which is much more choppy and makes for a less-long musical line. The original bowing makes the music flow. Sure, it's harder, but doing the original bowing changes the music into a more melodic-type of approach."
Caprice No. 10
"Number 10 is neither on-the-string up-bow staccato or ricochet -- it's flying staccato," Pine said. "It's fast and flashy, but it's in a minor key. It has a little more of a dark edge than No. 1, which is flashy but pretty cheerful."
Caprice No. 11
"The outer sections are very operatic and very melodic. The middle section -- here is another case where the original bowing is much harder, but totally worth it because it gives you a different feel in the music," Pine said. "It's 'contro-' you are supposed to play everything backwards: up, down-up, down-up... So no hooks, and even the running 16ths are backwards -- whoa, that's weird! But it actually gives it this special lift to the music, that lightness of touch, that you associate with the bel canto singers. To hook the bowing - that's just ordinary, that's what a normal, less-creative composer would have done. The fact that it was hard to do (the reverse-bowing) was just a side-effect of the musical intent, not the point."
Caprice No. 12
"No. 12 is my ugly duckling of the Caprices. It used to be my least-favorite; I thought it just was hard and annoying, and nothing much there," Pine said. The beauty of this caprice started to emerge for Pine after many years of playing it.
"The analogy I like to use is that it's like one of those paintings that's a bunch of dots, and then after you stare at it for a while, all of a sudden an image emerges," she said. "I feel like there are all these beautiful melodies in No. 12 that just rise out of the texture, but you just have to make friends with it enough that it can feel natural. Of all the caprices that I recorded, I'm particularly happy with No. 12 because it gave me the chance to open people's eyes to the potential that that Caprice has -- to totally get past what you have to do physically, to let the melodies shine forth."
"'The Devil's Laughter' -- Paganini never called it that, but it's been attached to it for a long time. It's not because of the diabolical middle section; it's actually named after the outer section, which has these chromatic descending thirds that sound like somebody going, 'Heh heh heh heh...!' You finish the middle section, which is so fiery, then you go back to this mischievous outer section again, and if you do it right, you can hear the audience chuckle."
This Caprice is also the first in "Part 3" of the Caprices. Strangely enough, "Paganini, in his manuscript, titled groups of the Caprices into three sets: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Part 1 was Nos. 1-6; Part 2 was Nos. 7-12, and Part 3 was Nos. 13-24. So it's actually 6 + 6 + 12. You would think, he would divdie it 8 + 8 + 8, but no. I think it's because the last 12 are a little bit shorter, with da capos. So in terms of practice time, the three parts are actually pretty equal."
Caprice No. 14
"It's among the shortest, if you don't do repeats," Pine said. "It's a brilliant fanfare. It would be a great one to start a short set list because it's like a trumpet call, grabbing your attention. It has a great spirit to it."
Caprice No. 15
"This is the only one with variations, besides the last Caprice, which is all about variations," Pine said. "It has this 'posato' melody, and then the exact same melody again, arpeggiated. The arpeggios are so high up on the fingerboard and so tricky to get in tune that it's hard to make the same musical line that you just made with the octaves, but of course that is what you need to do, to make it effective. If it can retain the same melodic shape you created in the first part, then the B section is a big contrast, it's flashy. Then you go back to the A section. If you're performing it and you have a few out-of-tune notes here and there, you think, well at least I get another chance!"
"This is another that's masquerading as a perpetual motion, but in fact is no such thing," Pine said. "The whole point of No. 16 is all of these off-beat accents that Paganini places in such a creative variety of different funky spots within the 3/4 type of measure. If you make sure every single accent pings out from the texture -- again the transitional bow helps with that but you can certainly manage it with your modern bow -- that's what makes that Caprice cool."
"When I practice it, I exaggerate the accents," Pine said. "The accents are marked with 'f's,' which is a funny way to do it. When I practice, I'll play each one of those super-loud, with a really sharp accent, and then all the other notes pianissimo, to make sure I'm absolutely nailing every single one of those 'f's.' Once I'm sure I've done enough with that exaggerated version, then I even it out again, and bring the rest of it back up to a reasonable dynamic volume and make sure that the 'f's' are still pinging."
Caprice No. 17
"I think of 17 and 19 together because both of their outer sections are some of the most light-hearted music in the entire cycle," Pine said. "It's just cute, fun, charming music."
"But then of course, the middle sections are absolutely dastardly!" she said. "The fingered octaves are infamous, for good reason. There's no one great solution. If you look at a whole variety of editions, you'll find a lot of different suggestions of how to approach the fingering of that middle section -- more fingered octaves; less fingered octaves; different ideas on where to change strings. This is definitely a case where looking at a lot of different ideas can be useful, to figure out what fingering works best for your hand. Once you find that, then commit to it, and practice your fingers off. It's just going to be super-hard."
"I love the opening of 17, as well; it is one of the most 'recitative'-type moments in the cycle," Pine said. "You can be molto rubato, there's no steady meter at all. (In the urtext), there's a big slur over the broken thirds on the eighth notes -- a slur with accents. A lot of people do those as separate bows."
But should they, or should they stick to the original bowings that Paganini wrote?
"Certainly performers from 200 years ago were much more individual and would insert their own ideas on top of the piece they were performing. So it can be argued you can do what you want with them," Pine said. "On the other hand, to give Paganini his due as a serious composer -- which we so rarely do -- I think one has to look at the original bowings and see if one can make something of them. These slurs are one of those occasions. I find in most cases, what he does with the bowings is something less flashy and more melodic, or lyrical, or atmospheric."
Caprice No. 18
"This is one of his two instances of playing on the G string alone," Pine said. "Of course, we know he was famous for playing on the G string alone, it's kind of a trick he invented, that he would carefully shave down the gut E, A and D to guarantee that they would break, so that he would be forced to play on his one remaining string and wow everyone. Now that definitely falls into the category of "'circus tricks'!"
"Considering that he played on a del Gesù from 1742, an instrument renowned for its deep, almost cello-y voice, I can't help but think that he must have also been attracted to this idea of G string playing, not just to impress people, but also because he would play the whole melody with this deep, del Gesù sound," Pine said. "For example, in the middle of No. 19, when he's running up and down the fingerboard, that kind of feels like, okay, the point of this is to run up and down the fingerboard! But, in the opening sections of 18, I feel like he's going for a uniformity of voice, and that is the reason why he is using the G string. Yes there are a few hardships, but it's not unmanageable. That melody is octaves, fifths, thirds -- the true tones of the triad. So to have them all on the same string gives them all the same tone, and that's a very special effect, musically."
"The middle section is full of thirds, and there are a number of dynamics to pay close attention to, as they give the lines direction."
Caprice No. 19
One of the challenges of this caprice is its introduction.
"It's four bars of octaves that I find very, very difficult," Pine said. There are two sets of octaves that descend, tracing an Eb major chord; a high one and a low one. "It's close to impossible to play them perfectly. And then the second set is supposed to be pianissimo, which is really hard to control. Unlike the nice intro to No. 17, where he wrote a whole cadenza; this is just like an introduction but it's not long enough to be one - I have a hard time wrapping my thoughts around how to make the beginning of No. 19 effective. That's a real challenge."
Caprice No. 20
"This is rightfully one of the most popular of the Caprices," Pine said. It sounds a little like it's imitating a bagpipe, though "it predates Paganini's trips to Scotland," Pine said. "Of course, bagpipes existed all throughout Europe, so it could have been Italian piping that inspired him to use a drone. It's just a beautiful melody," she said. "It's one of those real ear worms - you find yourself singing it hours after you heard it."
"I find the middle sections of Nos. 20, 22 and 13 are somewhat close siblings; they all have these fiery-fast elements, in between major-key outer parts," Pine said. "Whereas 13's outer parts are very mischievous; 20's are beautiful and calming; and then the outer parts of No. 22 are more of a strong statement."
Caprice No. 21
"No. 21 is an extremely special Caprice; I love its designation: 'Amoroso,'" Pine said. "You can almost here the lyrics: 'L'amore, oh how I love you..."' This is definitely an aria for the violin, like a cheesy Neapolitan song. "Even if you're not a singer -- and I'm not -- if you sing this and imagine your most cheesy, over-the-top, operatic performance of this melody, then you know how to shape it," she said. "And I love that it has a lower octave and a higher octave, so it's like the guy singing and then the girl singing."
Of course, at the end is a Presto peppered with technical challenges, as if to say, "Oh yeah, it's a Paganini Caprice, we should have some up-bow staccato! But the main, wonderful part of it is of course the melody," Pine said. Though it is sometimes played with schmaltzy slides in a more Romantic style, "I don't think it wants a really, really thick sound; again, if you think of Bellini, Rossini, then you have the right idea," Pine said.
When Pine wants to get the right kind of operatic feeling for Paganini, she said she often listens to a recording she particularly likes, An Italian Songbook by Cecilia Bartoli. "I listen to it every time I return to Paganini, whether it's one of the concerti or a performance of the Caprices," she said. "That's the language in which Paganini was writing. I would say he was even more affiliated with those Italian opera contemporaries than he was with any particular school of instrumental composition."
"We almost tend to think of his music as being divorced from period -- it's this virtuoso stuff that just exists in its own universe, and sometimes we'll lump Paganini in with Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps," she said. "But those guys are from a completely different era. Paganini is closer to Beethoven, whereas they are closer to Brahms, in terms of the kind of sound you might want to capture on the violin. I think we always have to keep that in mind, when interpreting Paganini."
Caprice No. 22
(See No. 20, discussed above)
Caprice No. 23
If you're playing them all through, this one is a test of stamina!" Pine said. "You're getting to the finish line and then No. 23 is kind of long -- even without repeats it's kind of long! But I love it. The middle section is so strong and powerful, and I love the rhythmic element. It's one of the rock 'n' roll Caprices, for sure. The outer sections have a melody with a lot of room for interesting dynamic schemes, ways to make it really dramatic with the use of dynamics."
"The wonderful thing about No. 24 is that there's no end to the ways in which you can interpret it," she said. "The only rule, I think, is that you have to make it interesting, you have to make it your own. Play around with the dynamics, with the tempos, with the ebb and flow of the drama of it. You can hear 20 different violinists perform it in 20 different ways and be just as effective."
Did Paganini write this melody?
"As far as I know, yes," Pine said. "Interestingly, so many people have written their own sets of variations on this melody. David Baker wrote a set of jazzy variations, each one in a different African-American musical style: funk, be-bop, all with piano -- it's quite an extravaganza. There's a bluegrass version by fiddler Richard Greene called Pagan Annie. It's endless, what's been done with this Caprice."
"In the famous piano-orchestra version by Rachmaninoff, there's a soaring melody in the middle that sounds like a typical Rachmaninoff melody -- that's actually Paganini's melody, upside-down," Pine said. "Every note that goes up, goes down, and every note that goes down, goes up! Then Fritz Kreisler took that Rachmaninoff tune and made a little violin and piano album leaf-type piece out of it. So you have a violin version based on a piano version based on violin piece. It's funny to think that Paganini always was taking other people's melodies and making variations on them, and now this is his one melody that everybody has taken and made into other music."Tweet
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