Paganini's 24 Caprices

July 29, 2009 at 03:39 AM ·

Are Paganini's 24 caprices considered the most technically difficult repoitore for violin? Is it fair to say that if one can play through Paganini's 24 caprices smoothly, one can play any violin piece?

Replies (46)

July 29, 2009 at 03:58 AM ·

Well, I guess if you can play through all 24 caprices, then playing most other music isnt impossible at all. But at that skill level, it wouldn't be about having the skills to play the music, but the expression and how well you can convey your feelings to the audience. Always room to keep growing. Just my two cents though.

July 29, 2009 at 03:59 AM ·

 There are certain things that are more difficult, but they aren't mainstream rep. Ernst's Variations on The Last Rose of Summer and Erlkonig are more demanding than the caprices. And many works, such as the Schonberg Violin Concerto are very difficult to understand and to make sound good, as well as being extremely technically demanding.

July 29, 2009 at 12:09 PM ·

Almost overnight (in his 1838 Vienna debut), Paganini advanced (or at least popularized) what is now considered advanced violin technique. Yes, there are more difficult pieces than the Caprices (musically as well as technically), but not by too much more (at least, technically). Paganini opened the door, and his technical challenges are still formidable and almost a requirement if you are striving for the heights of technique.
That's my final answer, and I'm sticking with it.

July 29, 2009 at 12:44 PM ·

The catch with the Caprices being, that written by a violin virtuoso-they lay on the fingerboard incredibely well.  They might be difficult, but there is a way to accomplish them.  Unlike a great deal of composers who came along later, who knew naught of violin technique-and LOVED to splatter ink at the page, and then asked musicians to play it. 

July 29, 2009 at 01:21 PM ·

I thnk the Ysaye solo sonatas have to be harder or maybe its just that i'm too old now to even be able to look at them.


July 29, 2009 at 02:32 PM ·

Yes, the Ysaÿe sonatas are often more difficult technically, but especially as far as interpretive issues are concerned, Ysaÿe is quite challenging. One of the difficulties with the Ysaÿe sonatas is the way Ysaÿe responded in them to both Bach and Paganini, and also that Ysaÿe wrote each of the 6 sonatas for a different player, each violinist (Szigeti, Thibaud, Enescu, Kreisler, Crickboom, Quiroga) having a highly developed individual style, and Ysaÿe brilliantly wrote each sonata in such a way that they were tailor-made for each player. Paganini did not write as though for 6 different highly unique players. Ysaÿe wrote for 6. In order to interpret the Ysaÿe set well, one has got to assume six totally different identities, and most violinists today (if any) do not have such a highly developed chameleon ability as would be necessary to pull this sort of thing off.

However, I will say that Paganini's Caprices, each one a wonderful musical gem, are asbolutely beastly to play well both musically and technically. People get so obsessed with the idea that Paganini's music was mere "showoff" music that when playing his music they look mostly at the technical appearances and sounds. I have actually never heard anyone play all 24 of Paganini's caprices in a way that satisfies me musically (and I've heard nearly every significant recording of them). The intrinsic artistic challenges of virtuoso pieces should not be underestimated. Paganini's caprices are among my favorite music ever written, and I actually get offended when I find them treated as "virtuoso showoff pieces." I feel the same way about Wieniawski's music - it is great music!

Oh, I think the Bartók solo sonata is probably somewhat more technically difficult than Paganini's caprices, as well.

July 29, 2009 at 03:33 PM ·


I couldn't agree more. As I've said many places on this website, I believe that Paganini was (and is) vastly underrated as a composer. Within his aesthetic vision he was a great, great composer, and not just because his melodies are pretty.

His vision wasn't the spiritualism of Bach or the classicism of Mozart and Beethoven or the romanticism of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. His was the theatrical, dramatic, vocal aria of Italian opera, with the violin as a kind of "super voice." I think that his life story certainly supports this hypothesis.

Although I've never had the technique to play Paganini, I, too, have listened to plenty of him. I don't even think it's the usual cliche of the violin as a "singing" instrument. I believe the artistic vision is vocal, almost speaking rather than singing. You can almost hear words to much of it. It seems to me that the best Paganini interpreters (and I would put Menuhin in that category) sound almost as if they are speaking rather than singing. And the "speaking" is theatrical. This is music written for an audience as a group of people at a public theatrical performance, not an "audience" comprised of individuals each introspecting introvertedly about the music. In this sense, I think Paganini succeeded better than any other composer who ever wrote for the violin.

So (if you are inclined to accept the advice of a rank amateur), play Paganini as if you are in a theatrical drama and are speaking or singing an aria up on the stage. If you envision it that way, you just might play it a lot differently.


July 29, 2009 at 04:25 PM ·

It is common opinion that Paganini's caprices are the most difficult...thru my research I have found many caprices and solo pieces from this period that are as and more difficult than these. 

But I think for all intensive purposes, I believe the complete mastery of the Paganini caprices, both technically and musically, will prepare the violinist for anything that comes their way...especially anything from the 19th and early 20th century...anything written by a violinist or a composer with consideration for the performer :-)  J

July 29, 2009 at 09:07 PM ·

As an amateur but old listener, I found that almost all violinists play the caprices too fast and don't "sing" For example, the beautiful first, they play it almost "presto", and that is not the marked tempo. In that way, it looses all meaning and became only an empty technical exercise.

July 30, 2009 at 04:05 AM ·

So true Carlos. But it is so much easier to play fast than slow :)

I also find it facinating that most go an and telling everybody that Beethoven's violin concerto mus be played in a classical way, but these (older) works must be played in a romantic way. It is obvious that Pag was so much ahead of his time noone dares to play him as music from the time it was written!

July 30, 2009 at 04:39 AM ·


I agree with you completely that Paganini's music should be played as though in a thetrical drama. In fact, many times when Paganini performed in public it was actually between acts of an opera. Of course, that was common for many solo instrumentalists at the time. However, whenever I listen to Paganini, especially the concerti, I feel that a concert hall is the wrong place to encounter such music. I always have found myself feeling that the most appropriate setting for listening to Paganini is in an opera house. Perhaps it is partly because his instrumentation sounds like Rossini. Yet...there is something within Paganini's music itself that speaks like an open heart which reveals everything. Concert halls are for music that has secrets hidden within. Theatres are for unabashed declaration of thoughts and especially emotions. Most musicians who know me think I'm sort of crazy because I actually consider Paganini as great and as important a composer as Beethoven. As far as the direction music went (after the first decade or two of the 19th century) Paganini had the same weight of impact as Beethoven did, despite the vast differences between their styles and overall aims.

There is such a huge difference between a technical showoff feat and a presentation of a theatrical drama. I'm convinced that if Paganini had not been a violinist he would have become an opera composer and given Rossini a run for his money. However, we violinists must look at it this way - Paganini wrote wonderful operas for us, where the violin is the character on stage.

Ah, Sandy, I'm so glad to know that there is at least someone out there besides me who feels that Paganini is a truly great composer and that he should be viewed theatrically.


July 30, 2009 at 12:18 PM ·

Bravo, Stephen: You've got it exactly. You are a genius, and (as Oscar Levant said) there are so few of us left.
:) Sandy

July 30, 2009 at 01:13 PM ·

I recommend you try his chamber pieces; his 3 traditional SQ, the SQs. with guitar, the short sonatas for violin and guitar, his "terzetti concertante for viola, guitar and cello, duetti for violin and cello, "Il cor piu non mi cento" on 2 violins and cello, "La Campanella" on violin,cello and guitar, the rare "Divertimenti Carnavaleschi" for 2 violins and cello... I've all those works and I love it. IMHO there are some of the best Italian romantic works of the 19th.century. But very few ever plays them or know they exist.

July 30, 2009 at 02:43 PM ·

Ah! I absolutely love Paganini's sonatas for violin and guitar!

July 30, 2009 at 03:04 PM ·

KVOD Denver played some of his guitar works and I was thoroughly amazed!  The problem that my ears nag to me about the recordings of his caprices, is that of violinists who play so techn icaly perfect that expression is lacking or devoid!  I have a CD of Midori playing all 24.  Intonation & tecnique, not one note out of tune not one beat out of if that's all there is to them.  If only I could play so well from that aspect.  But all streight forwards, hardly any dinamics if any.  Then again it could have been the sound engineer and not her.

July 30, 2009 at 03:26 PM ·

One of the best recording of the 24 I know, is that of the today forgotten czech Ivan Kawaciuk in the 50s.. He wasn't technically perfect, but he had expression and emotion, and didn't run all the time.

July 30, 2009 at 09:13 PM ·

No. There are always harder things to play.

If you are talking about technical difficulty, Ernst's Six Polyphonic Etudes would pu the 24 caprices to shame.

Emotionally, many sonatas and concertos are much more demanding. Even some Baroque stuff (i.e. bach's chaconne) is more emotionally draining than the caprices.

July 30, 2009 at 09:16 PM ·

No. There are always harder things to play.

If you are talking about technical difficulty, Ernst's Six Polyphonic Etudes would pu the 24 caprices to shame.

Emotionally, many sonatas and concertos are much more demanding. Even some Baroque stuff (i.e. bach's chaconne) is more emotionally draining than the caprices.

July 30, 2009 at 11:19 PM ·

Everyone says that Paganini made the biggest advancement in violin difficulty, but I strongly disagree.


The Bach 6 Sonatas and Partitas are so much harder.  Written like a century before but ten times harder.

July 31, 2009 at 04:29 AM ·

Ah, but Paganini did do more than any other single violinist to advance the capabilities of what could be done with a violin and the new Tourte bow. However, it should also be remembered that Paganini himself acknowledged a deep debt to Pietro Locatelli's L'Arte del Violino (published in Amsterdam 1733). Paganini even almost exactly quotes some of Locatelli in the 1st caprice. Whether Paganini was actually the first to "invent" certain techniques is not very important. He did, however, firmly establish and fully exploit more new violin concepts than any other single violinist before him. To name just a few of these - ricochet and other bouncing bow strokes, harmonics (extensive use of both natural and artificial harmonics), left-hand pizzicato (and not just alone, but sometimes with left-hand pizz. going on at the same time as playing a bowed passage - Variations on God Save the King is a great example of this technique which both Ernst and Wieniawski later used on occasion). Paganini also was the first (I think) to frequently use such things as parallel tenths and continuous scales in thirds for an extended time. He also pioneered fingered octaves, and, as Ruggiero Ricci point out, a certain sort of glissando technique.

I'm not saying anything here about the difficulty level of Paganini vs. Baroque music or anything else, but Paganini truly did establish more new techniques and concepts in violin playing than any other violinist in history. If one compares all the known possibilities of violin technique just before Paganini with all that Paganini used in his playing and compositions - just look at concerti by Viotti and then take a look at Paganini's caprices, concerti, and other works - it is a very drastic change. While Locatelli did use many of the things that Paganini later adopted and perfected, it must be remembered that Locatelli at the time had been totally forgotten and that Paganini, when a youth, was the one who really rediscovered Locatelli and actually took Locatelli seriously. Oh, Paganini also was the first since Biber (I think) to use scordatura.

July 31, 2009 at 05:27 AM ·

i'm convinced the second piece in Suzuki Book I is harder than Paganini and Ernst's compositions combined

July 31, 2009 at 10:13 AM ·

The KVOD D.J. said that Paganini voiced that he felt that a contempory violinist of his was a better violinist than he.  If this is so, he seems to have been a some what modest man.

July 31, 2009 at 04:46 PM ·

I believe Paganini musics are difficult for some simply because of the physical limitation.

Few years ago when I was about to take the paganini challenge, and started off with the 1st caprice, I thought it was a hell to do even just the first chord. My fingers couldn't reach the notes, or they're blocking the strings and prevent them to vibrate.

After years of stretching and practicing, now I'm able to play it, although not smooth, not even remotely close, but at least it prove that if the player isn't physically ready it's extremely difficult to accomplish. But at this level, I'm facing the smooth transition of the fingerings than the physical limitation, so I'm seeing the possibilities to accomplish this song pretty soon.

Anyway, after getting deeper into this composition, Paganini's composition is actually very human and clever. It's written by a violinist for violinists, his work always make a lot of sense in terms of fingerings and phrasings. What may seem demonic solely by listening, paganini written them in a way that it actually plays more human than it sounds. Hats off to Paganini for his brilliant intelligent to write beautiful musics, and I definitely agreed that his musics are beautiful musically! If one has to talk about showing off, it's his intelligent rather than technique difficulties that being showing off everytime his music was played!

Above are my 2 cents, and the rest are pretty much covered by other members.

July 31, 2009 at 05:07 PM ·

My hats off to all of you who can play at this level!

July 31, 2009 at 09:07 PM ·

This is the second pointer to Locatelli TODAY for me in the context of talking about the Caprices.  So I found his L'Arte del Violino, which someone elsewhere just compared to the Caprices.

They're right (IMSLP).

July 31, 2009 at 07:34 PM ·

A few have written that Ernst's Last Rose is harder than the Caprices. I've only played these pieces on viola, but I don't agree. Sure the Last Rose is quite a bit harder than *some* of the Caprices like 20, 16 or 13.

But I would say on a purely technical level, Nos. 4, 8 or 12 are harder to pull off than the Last Rose.

Sure the Last Rose requires more stamina, it's a longer piece than any of the Caprices, and quite a bit longer than most of them. That said, it was also written for performance.

As far as I'm aware, Paganini didn't perform most of his Caprices publicly. They really were meant as etudes, and in some of them this emphasis really shows (IMHO).

July 31, 2009 at 08:36 PM ·

John Cage: Freeman Etudes

July 31, 2009 at 08:37 PM ·

I had a recording of those at one point...wasn't my cup of tea, didn't finish it...

July 31, 2009 at 09:43 PM ·

Yeah, Jonathan, they aren't pleasing to the ear, but if you can play every note correctly, you're one of the greatest violin technicians ever!

July 31, 2009 at 10:53 PM ·

Not only that! But incorporate expressions of feeling, etc.!

August 1, 2009 at 12:03 AM ·

Exhibit A...what do you all think of the easy part of this Caprice?



August 1, 2009 at 04:56 AM ·

Since I have three hands, I find that quite playable... He He - NOT :-)

That is especially difficult to play for todays violinist that have to vibrate on every note :)

August 1, 2009 at 05:10 AM ·

What do you think of these stretches?



August 1, 2009 at 05:16 AM ·

I just got some interesting solo violin music by Franz Clement that I will scan is a set of 12 caprices and the 3rd (or 4th can't remember now) is an interesting 2 line for arco/pizz :-) 

August 1, 2009 at 01:45 PM ·

How is this played, as a trill?

So far, of the given examples, If I play at one beat per second I get close...... Y'all amaze me!

August 1, 2009 at 03:22 PM ·

Thanks Jonathan, care to demonstrate?  (Insert smiley face here).

I think Ernst one-upped Paganini, but so did Wieniawski. The Op. 10 Ecole Moderne Etude-Caprices are, IMHO, harder than the caprices.  But a really great Bel Canto style is hard too, so maybe it all comes out in the wash...

August 1, 2009 at 10:30 PM ·

 Hi Royce, that technique is called tremolo legato...check out the Saint-Lubin recording on my profile to hear a lot of it.  J 

August 2, 2009 at 05:53 AM ·

Jon - now that looks just Nuts! :-)

August 2, 2009 at 06:30 AM ·


it`s not anywhere near as difficult as it looks.  The actual pitch change is created by extreme changes in bow weight. That`s why such passages are frequently marked `lh`  for `Lean heavily.`  The 12 marking which has confused people in the past is simply the verbal encouragement that typically accompanies strenuous exercise.  

If you need any further assistance don`t hesitate to ask,



August 2, 2009 at 01:59 PM ·

Ok - I'll bite. Why is it a number 4 above the melody notes Buri??? Is it because you are suppose to play on a golf field? 

August 3, 2009 at 03:41 AM ·

Mattias--  yes!  thnx for your observation about the period shared by Beethoven and Paganini.  I have my CD's filed chronologically (roughly by composer birth, but things get fuzzier in 20th century and onward), and Paganini's place between Beethoven and Schubert always amazes me...  (I also love that Scott Joplin, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg are chronological next-door neighbors on my shelf ! )

August 3, 2009 at 07:34 AM ·


Mattius,  it`s simply an indicator of volume on a scale of one to ten. Standard practice at the time since writing mf, f etc takes twice the amount of ink.



August 3, 2009 at 01:49 PM ·

Lol! That is a smart system, why don't more composers use it???

August 4, 2009 at 10:29 PM ·


August 5, 2009 at 02:40 AM ·


Those stretches in the Adagio are no sweat.  I can do them easily.....


On my son's 1/10 size violin.  :-)

August 6, 2009 at 09:27 AM ·

 maybe not easily... but generally speaking if you can play all 24 smoothly you should be technically capable to play any violin piece. there are definately harder pieces but if that is your foundation you should feel very confident about your abilityies. 

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