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Arts Desk

The Wizardry of Paganini


Born in northern Italy in 1782, Niccolò Paganini became one of the greatest violin virtuosos in classical music history. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, his 24 Caprices show off his extraordinary technique—and more.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about the amazing technique, musicality and emotional appeal of Paganini and his 24 Caprices.

Radio script:

[Music: Paganini, Caprice No. 5, Rachel Barton Pine]

Susan Lewis: Paganini kept many of his compositions for himself to perform during his lifetime. But his 24 caprices he published and dedicated to 'all the artists.' Violinist Rachel Barton Pine:

Rachel Barton Pine: I think he really wanted to make music with these caprices, not just have a set  of etudes to show off the brilliance of your virtuosity;  you know it’s not a bunch of Olympic figure skaters doing triple jumps.

SL: Okay, there are some pretty amazing jumps, extreme reaches, bouncing bow effects,  and other technical wizardry.

RBP: But he also increased the violin’s tone color possibilities and expressive range, and I really believe that’s what he was aiming for, just to expand what the violin was capable of saying.

SL: Number 6, for example, with double stop trills and tricky finger configurations.

RBP: Creating this amazing, mysterious atmosphere, almost an impressionistic sound that emerges from the violin.

SL: Paganini, she notes, was also coming from the Bel Canto tradition of opera composers: Bellini, Verdi, and Rossini. 

RBP: That’s the musical language he was writing. He was almost taking that vocal style and transferring it to the violin.  You can almost hear that in the aria-like melodies.

[Music: Paganini, Caprice No. 11, Rachel Barton Pine]

RBP: We think of him as this virtuosic composer with the fast-flying fingers, but surely all those women weren’t swooning at his concerts just because he was shredding. It must also have been because he touched their hearts.

Rachel Barton Pine  has recorded  all 24 Caprices and other works for solo violin on Bel Canto Paganini. The CD also includes her own composition inspired by Paganini: Introduction, Theme and Variations on God Defend New Zealand.