Paganini's 24th Caprice - Inspiring Composers for 200 Years

April 19, 2021, 11:41 AM · There is something to be said for old technology. Take our landline phone, for example. The handsets must be all of twenty years old. Although their screens are fading and the keypads are worn to the point where the numerals are barely discernable, we doggedly cling to these dated relics of yesteryear. One reason we are reluctant to replace the handsets is the ringtone jingle – the theme from Paganini's celebrated 24th Caprice. Composed early in the 19th century by the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini, this signature musical gem in A minor is arguably one of the most recognizable and catchy themes in all of music. Kudos to the Panasonic engineer whose ear for a classical icon led to its inclusion as a standard offering on Panasonic phones of that era.

Heifetz Paganini
Jascha Heifetz, and the original 1934 78 rpm Heifetz recording of Paganini's 24th Caprice, from the collection of the author.

Violin recordings of Paganini's Caprice No. 24 are legion. Heifetz probably did more to promote the work in the 20th century than anyone, starting with public performances in Russia at age nine, playing the Auer arrangement with piano accompaniment. His mastery was committed to disc in a seminal 78 rpm recording made in London in 1934 and subsequently captured on film in a later live performance.

Today, virtuoso performances on video are standard fare, for example that of Alexander Markov. Other renditions cover the gamut, from Hilary Hahn's double feature with Milstein's Paganiniana to an arrangement for violin and orchestra featuring David Garrett in a video evoking Paganini the rock star.

The Caprice has provided unprecedented scope for multifarious composers and performers to exercise their compositional and transcriptional imaginations.

Piano adaptations abound, and it is on these we will focus here. They open a whole new universe of harmony, counterpoint and rhythmic embellishment of Paganini's original theme and variations. In the process these keyboard creations have stretched the concept far beyond anything that Paganini could have imagined.

The piano, of course, adds dimensions denied the violinist – disposition of theme and variations between left and right hands, and opportunities to enrich the harmonies. I've selected some of the most memorable keyboard inventions from the piano literature, in the hope that these will offer string players a broader appreciation of this unique icon of the violin literature.

Hewing close to Paganini's original 24th Caprice format is Liszt's Etude No. 6 (composed in 1838, revised in 1851). Franz Liszt, as we know, was powerfully influenced by Paganini, to the point where he completely revamped his approach to pianism. It is therefore not surprising that he would compose his own set of variations on Paganini's fetching theme. In so doing he applied his signature grand pianistic style to the etude, while simultaneously artfully weaving the theme into both left- and right-hand parts with much layering of the harmonies. A latter-day performance executed with prowess equal to Liszt's challenges is that of Alexander Lubyantzev:

While published originally as a set of etudes, Studies for Pianoforte: Variations on a Theme of Paganini, the famous Brahms variations of 1863 in two sets broke out of the mold of mere Caprice transcription, while also exploiting major pianistic technical challenges no less formidable than those of the Liszt Etude. These are perhaps the most popular of the adaptations to be found in the piano literature. The era of recorded music is laced with memorable renditions of this work. In the 20th century, they range from the landmark 1929 recording by Wilhelm Backhaus to the gloriously expressive and poetic 1997 interpretation by Evgeny Kissin, who unleashes his virtuosity at will when the work demands (on CD, as well as Youtube.).

In between are many notable performances reviewed by Bryce Morrison (Gramophone, March 2003, pp 36-39) highlighting several offerings. Honorable mention is made of a 1948 recording by the legendary Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, though special plaudits are reserved for the Hungarian pianist Geza Anda and America's Julius Katchen. If it is sheer thrill one is seeking, then look no further than the super-human dynamism and bravura of another Hungarian, Gyorgy Cziffra (EMI Classics, CZS 7 67366 2 A). Morrison describes Cziffra's keyboard delivery as "a trapeze act without safety net."

In the 21st century we are treated to many remarkable performances of the Brahms variations including that by consummate artist Yuja Wang in both disc and live video versions:

The video pulls together visual emotional magnetism and technical dexterity to create the complete musical experience. According to the CD program notes Wang views both books of Brahms' variations as a global whole rather than as a series of etudes. She has accordingly re-arranged the order of variations to some degree following the lead of Michelangeli, and has also deftly varied the pauses between them to achieve her grand conception of the work.

Straying from the regular romanticism of Brahms in the solo piano literature are the more adventurous compositions wrought by great pianists of a bygone era who turned their enormous talents and pianistic abilities to spreading the wings of this jewel. Among these were two keyboard giants of the early 20th century, Mark Hambourg and Ignaz Friedman, both former students of the great pedagogue Theodore Leschetizky. As with Brahms, both replaced the Paganini variations with their own sets. Hambourg's conception (Variations on a Theme by Paganini of 1902) is the more traditional of the two, but with novel insertion of transitions and creative modern manipulation of the theme and harmonies into an expansive whole. Friedman (Studies on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 47b of 1914) has created a slightly more avant-garde set of variation miniatures to build up his compositional edifice. In another Gramophone review (August 1992) Bryce Morrison describes Friedman's variations as "teasingly ingenious." They are certainly under-appreciated and would make for alluring concert repertoire as an alternative to the Brahms variations. A performance by Valerie Tryon executed with aplomb can be heard on YouTube:

Both Hambourg's and Friedman's extraordinary variations on Paganini's epic theme can be enjoyed on a recent CD, Paganini at the Piano, with Croatian pianist Goran Filipec impressive at the keyboard.

Keyboard adaptations continued well into the 20th century including the well-known works with orchestration – the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) and Witold Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme of Paganini, originally for two pianos (1941) and then in a version for piano and orchestra.

Composer-pianist Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody is somewhat concerto-like in form, played as a continuous whole, but in three distinct parts reflecting different concerto movements. Variations 11 through 18 could be considered as a slow second movement separating the first movement from the finale. Variation 18 is noteworthy in that it essentially turns the basic A minor theme of the original Caprice on its head. In this inverted form, played in Eb major, it has spawned a famous melody in its own right, gravitating, inter alia, to the movie screen. Rachmaninoff exploits to the full his prodigious keyboard skills and his way with melodic transformation and modulation, taking the work in a new direction away from its Paganini roots.

The Rhapsody does not shy away from keyboard acrobatics. The difficulties in the last variation (No. 24), for example, are said to have even unnerved Rachmaninoff himself before his world premiere of the work on November 7, 1934 in Baltimore with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. According to Rachmaninoff lore, his admitted performance jitters led to him drink a glass of crème de menthe to steady his nerves before walking out on stage. The press duly dubbed the piece the "Crème de Menthe Variations." Here is Rachmaninoff performing the work himself:

The manuscript of Lutoslawski's Variations barely survived the Nazi destruction of Warsaw after the 1944 uprising, when the composer fled the city carrying just a handful of his music scores. The work follows the original Paganini Caprice theme-and-variation format but there the similarities end. It introduces many devilish developments – contrapuntal canon within the piano parts, melodic transformation, poly- and atonality, rhythmic mobility and syncopation. This cheeky conception expands the genre even further away from the original Paganini source as well as from the traditional Brahmsian approach. Several duo-pianist performances are available via online video, few more sparkling than that of Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich :

For something a bit off the beaten classical track, there is an intriguing jazzed-up option by Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say (Click here to watch it on Youtube.). His creation beguiles with hints of improvisational flair.

Capping off this sampler of Paganini on Keyboard is an extraordinary 21st century work by Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin. In the best traditions of piano giants Hambourg and Friedman, Hamelin created his own diabolical variations on Paganini's immortal theme a century after these piano legends. His 2011 live video recording by the CBC is nothing short of a stunning blend of compositional creativity and virtuosity:

All of these remarkable and expansive developments in the musical cosmos are but a consequence of the Big Bang generated by Paganini's original Caprice. Underlying them all, and free of any harmony or musical machination, remains the timeless theme. Not so timeless is our dated landline, but every phone call we receive serves as a reminder of the enduring genius of Nicolò Paganini.

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April 20, 2021 at 04:47 AM · What a joy it was to watch and listen to the examples presented here. I’d like to say this made my day, but really it made my whole month! That last one by Fazil Say, wow! Thank you for presenting this for us.

April 20, 2021 at 09:56 PM · Great presentation.

One wonders about the personal impact of Paganini over time, from the non-recording technology eras into the advent of recording technology.

Consider that one of Paganini's only real "pupils" was Camilio Sivori, who taught Zino Francescatti's father, who taught Zino Francescatti.

Consider that Zino Francescatti sounded like no one else; he is instantly recognizable.

Is it possible that when we listen to a Francescatti recording, we are listening - at least in some small way - to the voice of Paganini?

Just a thought.

April 21, 2021 at 12:14 AM · I think we are in a sense.

Francescatti’s fingerings have a very personal stamp to them. His Lalo recording and sheet music edition are well known of course. I think Paganini would have loved the Lalo he Symphonie espagnole

I believe Paganini taught chamber music; his sonatas are well crafted.

I’m curious how Paganini would stack up against virtuosos of our day in terms technical ability. I think he was a very good composer of solo and chamber music.

April 21, 2021 at 08:29 PM · As from ~ Original Artist Pupil of Jascha Heifetz {JH Violin Master Classes on YT, etc,} (#4)

Re ~ Mr. Heifetz's, as innuendo'd by Mr. Brittan, Paganini 24th Caprice Early recording may be the most significant Paganini influence as a Composer-(Violinist) than any other's?

Knowing and studying with Jascha Heifetz, certainly provided one with an up close very personal violinistic - musical shared understanding and view, literally! One of only 7 pupil's in Mr. Heifetz's original Violin Master Class at USC's Institute for Special Music Studies built/conceived for a 'Trial Run' of Mr's Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky & William Primrose, agreeing to an Artist Teach & "See How it Goes", All went so unexpectedly well that NYC Film Producer, Nathan Kroll, convinced JH to allow him to--with his entire film & audio crew travel from NYC to USC's Los Angeles campus to film 7 individual Violin Master Classes but individually due to what Heifetz termed, 'Normal in class' to accurately on film present what was occurring daily be exactly represented and minus much editing ~

That said, I must mention w/respected reference to Mr. Brittan, the fact that Jascha Heifetz Never {during our lengthy classes held twice weekly for 6 hours each day with an extra hour for lunch plus Friday afternoons w/JH, GP & WP Chamber Music up to 3 -4 hours}, played nor even hinted at Paganini's Caprice #24 or Any Paganini to any of the seven of us which, btw, included fellow Jascha Heifetz Violin Master Class classmates, Erick Freidman, Carol Sindell, Varoujan Kodjian, Robert Witte, Adam Han Gorski, Claire Hodgkins & yours truly, all of whom had come by Heifetz's invitation thru audition from very superb teacher's, most of whom are quite known to readers here!! Certainly, JH felt many of us could 'handle' a Caprice or more of Paganini & many! Actually, it is intriguing as to the Why? of Heifetz never requesting any to bring Paganini Caprices or the unique 24th Caprice to play to him!!? An idea just occurred to me it may have been JH preferred the 24th Caprice only with Piano Accompaniment ~ That said, I do know that much much later on during Mr. Heifetz's long association with USC & that of Piatigorsky & Primrose, {whom, btw, moved to Provo, Utah, Brigham Young University with a Mormon wife about 10 years out}, leaving his treasured & idolised Icon colleagues in Los Angeles, {more on WP another time, whom I came to know well, advising re a violin concerto premiere I gave, composed for me by BYU Faculty Composer Awardee}, and with further thought I do recall that Mr. 'H.' did begin (and toward his later JH Violin Master Classes) to RX Paganini Caprices to unique pupil's and definitely to *Endre Granat, in particular, who was JH granted most markings in JH's '74 Recordi updated Paganini Caprices from the original by Paganini hand manuscript which has been recently 2017 published by Keiser Music Publishing: 'Heifetz Collection, PAGANINI 24 Caprices, Op.1, Urtext Edition Edited by *Endre Granat', {a friend/fellow JH pupil colleague}.

But to get back to Mr. Brittan's subject of long term influence of Niccolo Paganini, it does seem a stretch & quite a lengthy one, to attach only Heifetz's Name to having championed (my word) the works of Paganini more so than other violinists, and must add another string cousin, as Heifetz was Concert Touring all across the Globe and recording extensively as well & must add, also 'Championing' Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto, as No Other Violinist in the Twentieth Century! This Is Fact! Think: If any other Violinist can be associated & artistically so with the 24 Caprices of Paganini, it IS Nathan Milstein, with whom I three & one half years privately artist studied at his Chester Square home! Milstein was the most Classical Paganini player yet preferred performing vast Concert Violin Concerti & Recital repertoire rather than be 'known' as a Paganini player, Only ~ There were several Paganini players highly esteemed for their foray's near exclusively into Paganini Caprices & 4 plus Violin Concerti w/2 native born in Italy, i.e., Salvatore Accardo, Pina Camarelli, & US Ruggiero Ricci!! All 3 Violinists championed the works of Paganini which formed much of each artists' own public profile Biography and Discography! This is Not intended to detract from Mr. Brittan's marvellous foray into such great other concert artists, string or piano, having been intrigued & smitten by the uniquely composed compelling 24th Caprice of Paganini in its by now, many varying forms which we love as Rachmaninoff's extraordinary Rhapsody for Piano w/Orchestra plus All Mr. Brittan has mentioned and exhibited here for all of responders to listen and watch!!!

A huge Subject requiring lots of time to in-depth discuss, the time is slipping away just now but I would appreciate a 'Rain Check' to return to view Replies & then continue onward!

One Thought before temporarily leaving off: Nathan Milstein, my 'other' Icon Violin Mentor & Great Friend of 24 years, IMO, did More to advance the mystique of Paganini's Legend than even Heifetz, for one simple Huge Reason! "PAGANINIANNA", & NM spelled ? scribbled Manuscript of his solely Composed - (Not Arranged) - Work which bears its Name! Furthermore, on

numerous occasions in Mr. Milstein's Chester Square Lounge/ cum Studio, he often played his beloved compositions specific sections thereof if he was imparting his uncanny bowings in a

given section to me (some of which sound clumpy in other hands) to impart his own bowing technique into my own Bow Arm and for the rich musicality within Paganinianna, for there in it exist many glorious moments of near Mozartian beauty/simplicity if and Only If one truly listen's to NM's offering of his revelatory solo piece & one fully realises God's providence in placing me in a coincidental position of being dragged by the Great Auer St. Petersburg class-mate of JH, London's Sascha Lasserson, to Mr. Milstein to play Bach's Chaconne & upon hearing it thru then started helping me right there and my life as a violinist & person began to be changed and Liberated Forever! So one does truly appreciate only a few people & violinists have had the platinum opportunity of privately studying with The Master of J.S. Bach's Sonatas & Partitas & All 24 Paganini Caprices which were & remain Jewel's in Milstein's Hands/Heart as The Crown Jewels in The Tower of London! And, guys, NM helped transplant large portion's of his unique bowing techniques into my right arm & a partial left hand near spider crawling uncanny all over the fingerboard as a 2 inch 'play thing', technique and insisting I "PRACTISE and do so with your Eyes & sometimes Away from the Violin!!" Amen ~

Thank you, Michael Brittan, for your wonderful Article which we've just begun 'scratching' the top surface of today, on April 21st, 2021, which is HRH Her Majesty The Queen of England & The Commonwealth Nations, Ninety Fifth Birthday but w/the aching in Saint Saens' Violin Concerto #3 in b minor slow 2nd movement poignant French Impressionist Ache in HRH's Heart Birthday of 95 years, minus His Royal Highness, now late The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Royal Consort to Her Grace, The Queen on such an Epic Birthday made so poignant ...

Warm musical wishes from 'the Colonies'

.......... Elisabeth Matesky ..........

Those interested in HEIFETZ Collection, contact Joe Derhake, via email {} or Hal Leonard, Sales Director of Keiser Music Publishing (publisher of my late father, Ralph M's String Texts/Arrangements) with kind regards from his daughter, JH Pupil in JH Violin Master Class - Khachaturian, JH-7, Elisabeth Matesky *Russian vers. Library of Master Performers* YT ~

~ Wednesday, April 21, circa 2021 ~

April 21, 2021 at 09:52 PM · there is a John Williams arrangement for classical guitar, you are not missing anything

April 22, 2021 at 04:19 PM · I very much appreciate the various comments.

Thank you Mark Bouquet and glad "it made your day." The interesting thing is that in the piano medium there is a continuum of development of Paganini's theme and variations from Liszt through, inter alia, Brahms, Friedman and Rachmaninoff to Hamelin in the modern era. No such line of development exists in the case of the violin, where Milstein's Paganiniana is the only major contribution I am aware of that has stood the test of time.

Thank you also to Sander Marcus and for drawing attention to a line of pedagogy from Paganini to Zino Francescatti. Of all the great violinists of the mid-20th century, Francescatti is the one who I regret most not having had the privilege of seeing and hearing live in concert.

The question raised by Raymond Concannon regarding Paganini's technical virtuosity relative to today's standards will, I guess, forever thwart satisfying answers. What is known is that Paganini had very long and extremely flexible fingers. He appears to have used these physical attributes to advantage and to have adopted a left hand technique which made use of pivoting around a fulcrum of perhaps the third or fourth position and reaching up and down the fingerboard from that base. Ruggiero Ricci augmented standard shifting technique with somewhat of a similar approach, though without the physical advantages that Paganini enjoyed. Ricci published a book, "Ricci on Glissando," on the subject in 2007.

The technical perfection of today's eminent violinists can largely be traced to the influence of Heifetz whose mantra was that technical difficulty should not in any way inhibit performance interpretation. There were others, of course, such as Jan Kubelik whose technique was often spoken of in the same breath as that of Paganini. However, those making such comparisons, could only refer to Paganini's proficiency as hearsay.

It is interesting to hear from Elisabeth Matesky about the Heifetz masterclasses and the dearth of reference to the Paganini Caprices. This mirrors the fact that Heifetz eschewed the works of Paganini, as reflected in his discography. He also made it clear in an interview that he did not like being compared with Paganini. As far as has been established, Heifetz only ever recorded four Paganini pieces - the Moto Perpetuo, and Caprices 13, 20 and 24. The absence of Paganini from his recordings has been written about at length. See, for example, Sam Lee, “Jascha Heifetz: Why not Paganini?”, July 6, 2006, as well as “Ruggiero Ricci – The Pivotal Violinist,”, March 5, 2019.

At the same time, as I mentioned, Heifetz played the 24th Caprice in public starting at age nine, along with several other Paganini pieces such as I Palpiti and the Concerto No. 1 (in the single-movement Wilhelmj edition). These were regular components of his childhood repertoire in Russia and then further afield when he began touring in Western Europe. The 24th Caprice was the closing printed program item in his sensational American debut and it continued as part of his programming throughout his world travels in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, China, the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Australasia. Among his most extensive concertizing on the world stage was his epic 1931/32 circumnavigation of the globe, giving 100 concerts in 22 countries. In South Africa alone he gave 20 concerts. The 24th Caprice featured in no less than six of the twenty and inevitably "brought down the house." He even performed the Concerto No. 1 in Johannesburg at age 31 although Erick Friedman was reported as saying that he did not play it in public as an adult. So, Heifetz did his bit in spreading the gospel of the 24th Caprice in his career, probably inspiring many a violinist along the way, but also no doubt discouraging other aspirants!

Thank you, Elisabeth, for also sharing the fascinating insights into your association with the great Nathan Milstein. I had the good fortune to attend some of his concerts in the 1960s. He played three of the Paganini Caprices - Nos. 5, 11 and 13 - in one of the recitals.

Mark Roberts' mention of John Williams' arrangement for guitar serves to illustrate how extensively the 24th Caprice has been arranged and dispersed. An article can be found on-line which has endeavored to list as many such arrangements as research could turn up.

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