Kurt Sassmannshaus: Technique in Paganini Caprices

July 27, 2017, 5:40 PM · The great 19th-century violinist Nicolo Paganini dedicated his 24 Caprices "to the artists," but he never performed them in public himself.

So how are we supposed to?

The complicated technique involved in playing and performing Paganini's Caprices was the topic of a lecture by Kurt Sassmannshaus at the 2017 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies, which took place in June at The Juilliard School.

Kurt Sassmannshaus
Kurt Sassmannshaus.

Sassmannshaus teaches at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Great Wall International Music Academy and is the founder of ViolinMasterClass.com. Through Barenreiter he also has published the Sassmannshaus method books, an English version of his father's German violin method books.

When it comes to Paganini, he was most famous in Italy during his lifetime (1784-1840). He was in an incredible entrepreneur who became very wealthy -- though the casino he started in Paris drained him of much of that. He toured Europe until 1834, when ill health forced his retirement. Paganini wrote the 24 Caprices over a number of years, between 1802 and 1817. He published them in three stages: the first six, second six, and last twelve.

During the class Sassmannshaus talked about how to teach and practice the high-level techniques found in the caprices, going over several specific ones, after they were played by student artists who were participating in the Symposium.

Caprice No. 14 came first, with a demonstration from Strauss Shi. Here is just a small part of it:

This Caprice is kind of a trumpet call in triple-stops, thus the challenge is in getting those three-voice chords to ring, speak fully and go somewhere musically. Here are some tips from Sassmannshaus:

  1. Keep in mind that the strings are more flexible near the fingerboard, so this is where you'll have most success bowing on three strings at once.
  2. Playing all strings together requires pressure, but pressure can choke the sound. So in order to do this over the fingerboard, it will need a lot of bow speed.
  3. Practice just the lower string in the beginning; then practice playing on all three strings.

Next, Marley Erickson played Caprice No. 17, which features a lot of downward runs, as well as fingered octaves:

To make the notes of a downward run very clear, "we use a slight version of left-hand pizzicato," Sassmannshaus said. "A little of this pizzicato motion goes a long way for articulation." What this means is that the fingers are pulled off to the side, rather than straight up. This brought Sassmannshaus to another point, which is that students often wind up with a lot of tension that thwarts their left-hand speed and facility. "We sometimes ask students to 'drop' fingers fast, but that can result in too much pressure."

In order to teach students to use "just enough" pressure rather than overdoing it, Sassmannshaus has them play a passage in which they place a finger and then immediately release it to a harmonic, so that it is only touching and not pressing at all. After that, he has them release to "just enough," so that the note is sounding, but there is no extra tension.

"This is something I can't see easily as a teacher; it's something they can feel," Sassmannshaus said.

When it comes to doing the LH pizzicato motion for runs, sometimes one can hear a slight clicking, but in a hall this would not be audible, it would just be clear.

A number of Paganini Caprices, including No. 17, have fingered octaves, and Sassmannshaus said that the time to start teaching this technique is sooner, rather than later: as soon as they can play a one-octave scale. Here is one way that he introduces it:

One of the biggest issues will be knowing where whole steps and half steps are. Sassmannshaus talks about this in the video below, and also about the fact that the left hand should always be a little bit ahead of the right. Ellie Choi then demonstrates this, with an excerpt from Paganini Caprice No. 4:

Octaves can be introduced to a student who is quite young, age nine or 10, "it's a question of giving it to them or not," Sassmannshaus said. When it comes to fingered octaves, the biggest stretch is for the octaves in first position. For playing octaves, and in general, Sassmannshaus recommended keeping the size of the violin down, in the case of children, rather than giving a child a violin that is slightly too big for him or her. "Technique is much easier to learn on a small instrument," he said.

Next Kenneth Naito played Caprice No. 24 -- the Caprice that tends to be most-recognizable:

Beyond the pyrotechnics, one of the main concerns in this caprice is basic intonation. Sassmannshaus talked about intonation and gave a very concise description of Pythagorean intervals:

Perfect pitch does not help much with this, he said -- it's one thing to be able to name the pitch of the doorbell, and quite another to create it on a stringed instrument. The only path to excellent intonation in a piece as perilous as Paganini is slow practice. Really slow.

The late Dorothy DeLay, the great violin pedagogue who taught so many years at The Juilliard School, was known to do things like spend an entire lesson, practicing a piece (such as the last movement of the Mendelssohn concerto) with the metronome ticking at the dreadfully slow rate of 40 beats per minute.

"That type of practice gets it really in tune," Sassmannshaus said. You can start with the metronome at 40, then once that's accurate, move to 60, 80, etc. up to the tempo desired. It takes a lot of time in the lesson, for sure.

"You can spend a half-hour on the first theme," Sassmannshaus said, "but it's a half-hour well-spent."

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July 28, 2017 at 10:58 AM · Yes! Thank you, Laurie! I was so excited when you wrote that Mr. S was going to giving a talk on Paganini. Thank you for all this great coverage!

July 28, 2017 at 04:18 PM · Kurt is a violinistic treasure. Thanks for posting!

July 29, 2017 at 03:35 AM · Thank you for posting this, Laurie! Very interesting, and some very nice playing by the students!

July 29, 2017 at 08:41 AM · Great posting, Laurie! Thank you! However, Paganini never started a casino in Paris! It is all part of the Paganini myth-making! See introduction to the book Paganini, "Little Pagan": the Life of Paganini in Verse (Suvini-Hand, 2017).

July 29, 2017 at 12:01 PM · Although Mr Sassmannshaus was talking about Paganini in particular, the invaluable advice and tips he gave are applicable to the whole range of violin playing.

July 29, 2017 at 04:19 PM · Thanks for the tip -- there is a lot of lore around Paganini!

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