Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz’s Musical Hallucination

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this is clearly an immature vision of love, idealized and illusory. It’s a work of full-blown Romanticism, more concerned with the moment than with traditional formal structure. Foreshadowing Freud, Symphonie fantastique takes us on a deeply psychological journey. What emerges after we enter this hallucinogenic dreamscape is both fascinating and frightening.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Symphonie fantastique’s form is driven by its drama, like an opera without words. Over the course of five movements, a “young musician” descends into the despair of unrequited love. In the first movement, subtitled Passions, this vague hero “sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her.” This passion is represented by the idée fixe, a musical idea (first heard at this moment in the first movement) which returns and develops throughout the Symphony. We hear the idée fixe pop up in unexpected places. Listen to the way it gradually creeps into the strings in this passage from the end of the first movement. At this moment in the third movement you might miss it, unless you’re tuned into the woodwinds. The fifth movement, Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath, depicts the Hero’s funeral. Witches and hideous monsters shriek, groan, and cackle amid quotes of the Dies Irae (the ancient chant evoking the Day of Wrath). The idée fixe now degenerates into a vulgar, grotesque parody of itself.

Berlioz’s music evokes dramatic scenes. In the third movement, we find ourselves in a country pasture. The sound of distant thunder echoes from hillsides. A dialogue between two shepherds can be heard in the English horn and offstage oboe. (Here Berlioz introduces a spacial dimension to the music that Mahler would later develop with his own offstage instruments). The end of the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, paints the gruesome scene of the hero’s execution. We hear the decapitated head bounce to the ground in the pizzicatos and then the cheering crowd. But Symphonie fantastique is more than a musical representation of a story. You can throw out Berlioz’s extensive program notes (included below) and the music stands on its own. Listen to Symphonie fantastique as pure music and you’ll hear the distinct personas of the instruments come to live and enter into a drama which transcends the literal story. Throughout the piece, instrumental voices combine and interact in innovative ways which hadn’t been imagined previously.

Amazingly, this music, written three years after Beethoven’s death, often sounds shocking and far-out, even to our modern ears. It’s filled with bizarre, erratic shifts in mood which constantly keep us off balance (for example, listen to this passage from the first movement). In the first movement’s development section, Berlioz veers into new territory with these strange ascending and descending parallel chromatic lines. You’ll hear fragments of this line return throughout the Symphony (here it is in the strange, halting climax of the third movement, and here, and here again in the final movement).

Nowhere is Symphonie fantastique crazier than in the final minutes of the last movement, beginning with this terrifying crescendo. We hear string sound effects like raspy sul ponticello (playing with the bow as close to the bridge as possible) and col legno (hitting the wood of the bow on the strings for a percussive effect that, in this case, sounds like a skeleton’s rattling bones). Listen to the insanity of the woodwinds in this passage, and the way they let out a final tauntingly demonic shriek a few moments later. The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath concludes with a hellish rumble which hangs in the listener’s ear long after the music has finished.

Berlioz’s program notes, written for the 1830 premiere:

Part One: Dreams – Passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – this is the subject of the first movement.

Part Two: A Ball

The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

Part Three: A Scene in the Country

Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain – all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. – But what if she were deceiving him! – This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.

Part Four: March to the Scaffold

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. – A roar of joy at her arrival. – She takes part in the devilish orgy. – Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae [a hymn sung in the funeral rites of the Catholic Church], sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies irae are combined.

Recommended Recordings

Music of Romantic Obsession

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From Vincent Van Gogh to Charlotte Brontë, artists, writers, and composers have occasionally entered the strange, darkly irrational world of romantic obsession. With Halloween approaching, let’s take a walk on the creepy side and explore three pieces which grew out of (what some would call) unhealthy romantic obsessions:

Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique

Written partially under the influence of opium, Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique takes us into strange, hallucinogenic territory. It summons new sounds from the orchestra, which must have shocked the audience when it was first heard in 1830. The symphony takes on new psychological depth in this work of full blown, heart-on-sleeve Romanticism. “Berlioz tells it like it is.” said Leonard Bernstein. “You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.” 

The Symphony’s drama is outlined in Berlioz’ extensive written program. Over the course of five movements, a “young musician” descends into the despair of unrequited love. In the first movement, subtitled Passions, this vague hero “sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her.” Each time he thinks of her, we hear a haunting musical theme, an idée fixe, which is repeated obsessively throughout the Symphony. What’s interesting is the way this theme, first heard in the opening movement at 5:39 in the recording below, develops throughout the piece. In the second movement, A Ball, it interrupts the waltz. In the middle of the strangely static, pastoral third movement, Scene in the Country, it pops up in the oboe and flute. In the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, the idée fixe returns in the clarinet as a nostalgic memory…the last thought before the Hero’s execution. The fifth movement, Dream of the Night of the Sabbath, depicts the Hero’s funeral. Witches and hideous monsters shriek, groan, and cackle amid quotes of the Dies Irae (the ancient chant evoking the Day of Wrath). The idée fixe now degenerates into a vulgar, grotesque parody of itself.

Just before beginning work on Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz developed an infatuation for Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress he saw perform the role of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the evening of September 11, 1827. His love letters remained unanswered. In 1832, after Harriet heard Berlioz’ Symphony, they met. Following a bitter, short-lived marriage, they separated permanently. Illusion could not be turned into reality.

In Friday’s post, I’ll have a few additional thoughts about Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. For now, get acquainted with the piece through Michael Tilson Thomas’ 1998 recording with the San Francisco Symphony:

Janáček’s “Intimate Letters”

You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately…

This is a passage from one of the over 700 letters Czech composer Leoš Janáček wrote to Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years his junior. Janáček, who was also married, fell in love with Kamila after meeting her in 1917. Although she remained ambivalent, Janáček continued to write to Kamila daily. More importantly, the obsession seems to have inspired a stunning burst of creativity in the final years of Janáček’s life which included three operas (with characters inspired by Kamila), the Sinfonietta, and the String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters.” Throughout the Second String Quartet the viola personifies Kamila. The work was premiered on September 11, 1928, coincidentally the same date that Berlioz became infatuated with Harriet Smithson almost a hundred years earlier.

As with Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, this extraordinary music transcends the biographical curiosities of its creator. Now that you know the piece’s strange historical background, listen to it as pure, timeless music. Throughout four movements, this is music which constantly keeps us off guard. At some moments, it’s beautiful and melancholy. At other times, the instruments scream with the harsh, raspy “noise” we might hear in the music of George Crumb or Jimi Hendrix.

Here is the Hagen Quartet’s recording of Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters:”

Vertigo

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller film Vertigo, San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, haunted by his incurable acrophobia and vertigo, spirals into a dark, inescapable depression after being unable to prevent Madeleine from plunging to her death from the top of a bell tower. Bernard Hermann’s hypnotic score evokes Ferguson’s increasing obsession with Madeleine, following her death. Short, obsessively repeated arpeggios give us the physical sensation of vertigo (whirling and loss of balance), as well as hopelessness and entrapment. (Stephen Sondheim uses similar obsessive motivic repetition in Passionanother story of romantic obsession). At first, the tender, hushed music which follows in Herrmann’s suite promises to be more comforting. But we soon realize that it’s just as circular, and ultimately directionless, as what came before…an infinite, dreamlike maze in which the line between hallucination and reality is imperceptible.

In a 2004 interview with the British Film Institute, director Martin Scorsese cited Herrmann’s music for Vertigo as his all-time favorite film score:

Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again. Which is probably why there are so many spirals and circles in the imagery – Stewart following Novak in the car, the staircase at the tower, the way Novak’s hair is styled, the camera movement that circles around Stewart and Novak after she’s completed her transformation in the hotel room, not to mention Saul Bass’ brilliant opening credits, or that amazing animated dream sequence. And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for – he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.

Alex Ross provides equally interesting background and analysis in this article. He points out that, as Ferguson descends into insanity, there is increasingly less dialogue:

…essentially ”Vertigo” becomes a silent film. Except, of course, for the music, which plays almost without a break and gives the whole sequence its air of ineffable mystery. What is going on is difficult to describe: Herrmann shifts fluidly but uneasily among a few simple, cryptic chords, augmentations of familiar triads. Wistful hints of melody circle back on themselves instead of building into thematic phrases. The orchestration is dominated by high or low instruments (notably, violins and bass clarinets). The sequence is profoundly eerie but also very beautiful: it is neither tonal nor dissonant.

  • Find the San Francisco Symphony’s recording of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the Hagen Quartet’s recording of Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score at iTunes, Amazon.

Symphonic Snapshot: Mahler’s Second

Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910
Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910

In 2011, Music Director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with a free “Concert for New York” at Avery Fisher Hall. The program featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” a piece which opens with an anguished funeral march and culminates in a moment of ultimate transfiguration. In the final bars of the fifth movement, the traditional orchestra is suddenly augmented by the all-encompassing power of a pipe organ and a final proclamation rises up from the chorus:

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you! 

Mahler’s deeply psychological music was ahead of its time. Largely misunderstood by audiences during the composer’s lifetime, it wasn’t until the mid to late twentieth century that the music began to resonate fully with audiences. Now we collectively turn to this music in times of grief and confusion. “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music,” said Mahler. Transcending literal meaning, Mahler’s music communicates ultimate and eternal truth.

Coincidentally, the New York Philharmonic’s performance came within months of the hundredth anniversary of Mahler’s death in 1911. In many ways, Mahler’s music is infused in the orchestra’s DNA. In the final years of his life, Mahler served as the New York Philharmonic’s music director (between 1909 and 1911). His exhausting battles with the Philharmonic’s (at that time) small-minded and provincial leadership have been well-documented. Later, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein passionately championed Mahler’s works.

We’ll return to Mahler’s Second Symphony in greater detail in a future post. For now, here are a few musical snapshots from the Philharmonic’s 2011 concert. The first movement, Allegro maestoso, opens with a ferocious snarl which immediately demands our attention. The strings make an opening statement and then the woodwinds enter with the next layer of this long musical narrative. We hear the searing, mocking sounds of muted trumpets and horns. The Dies Irae (the Latin chant representing the “Day of Wrath”) surfaces briefly. The movement climaxes with a shockingly dissonant fortissimo (14:46), which anticipates the sounds of the twentieth century. There are also moments of otherworldly beauty and repose. But we keep getting pulled back to the funeral procession with a musical voice which says, “Don’t forget me! I’m still here!” There’s something slightly unsettling about the sudden and unpredictable way the music alternates in mood in this big, unfolding cosmic battle.

At one point in this performance the audience, which seems sincerely engaged in the music, begins applauding, apparently mistaking a powerful climax for the movement’s end. Seasoned concertgoers might frown on applause between movements, especially during the long, dramatic arc of a Mahler symphony. But this applause also seems to suggest that there were audience members in the hall who were hearing this piece for the first time, making the New York Philharmonic’s gift to their community even more special.

The Second Symphony’s fourth movement, Urlicht (“Primal Light”) originated in Mahler’s song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). It moves into the remote key of D-flat major, far from the Symphony’s principal keys of C minor and E-flat major:

This excerpt from the final movement begins with a solemn statement of the Dies Irae in the trombones and unfolds into a triumphant moment of exultation. Mahler’s score occasionally asks wind players to raise their instrument’s bell above the music stand to increase the volume and direct intensity of the sound. In this clip you’ll see the horns raise their bells:

  • Find the complete “Concert for New York” on iTunes, Amazon
  • Hear Claudio Abbado’s 2003 performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Rachmaninov and the “Philadelphia Sound”

Rachmaninov and conductor Eugene Ormandy during a rehearsal at the Academy of Music in 1938. (from the Philadelphia Orchestra's website).
Rachmaninov and conductor Eugene Ormandy during a rehearsal at the Academy of Music in 1938. (from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s website).

 

Great orchestras develop an institutional collective memory. As conductors and players come and go, they often leave a subtle mark on the sound, style, and soul of the ensemble. New players are assimilated into a dynamic, ever-evolving team. The esteemed history of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a case in point.

For years the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for its distinctive, darkly opulent sound, especially evident in the lush, velvety warmth of its string section. The “Philadelphia Sound” likely emerged under the leadership of Leopold Stokowski (music director from 1912 to 1938), who discarded a baton and conducted with his enormous, expressive hands. The sound continued to develop under Eugene Ormandy (music director from 1936 to 1980). Balance favoring the bottom voices (bass and cello) seems to have contributed to tonal richness and depth. Also, the dry acoustics of the Academy of Music may have played a role in shaping the “Philadelphia Sound,” as conductors attempted to compensate for the cavernous concert hall’s weaknesses.

The old Philadelphia Orchestra never sounded more vibrant than when it was performing the music of Sergei Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov’s long association with the orchestra is one of music history’s most fascinating examples of mutual influence between a composer and orchestra. Both Stokowski and Ormandy championed Rachmaninov’s music, beginning with Stokowski’s January 3, 1913 performance of the tone poem, Isle of the Dead. Rachmaninov’s final work, the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, first performed on January 3, 1941, was dedicated to Ormandy and the orchestra. Rachmaninov is said to have composed with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s sound in his mind. The sensuous beauty of Rachmaninov’s music surely left its imprint on the orchestra, as well.

Many excellent recordings have been made of Rachmaninov’s orchestral music in the intervening years, but there’s something uniquely soulful about the old Philadelphia recordings. Here is a sample:

Symphony No. 2

Eugene Ormandy recorded Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony four times: Once in 1934 with the Minneapolis Symphony, and again in Philadelphia in 1951, 1959, and 1973. The final recording restores the work to its original form, without Rachmaninov’s approved cuts. The performance below was a June, 1979 PBS broadcast, celebrating Eugene Ormandy’s 80th birthday. It’s amazing to watch Ormandy’s seemingly effortless sense of control. There’s nothing flamboyant or flashy in his conducting, yet he draws incredible power and warmth from the orchestra.

For Rachmaninov, the Second Symphony, written between 1906 and 1907, emerged out of uncertainty and self-doubt. Following the disastrous premiere of the First Symphony and the ensuing harsh criticism, Rachmaninov fell into debilitating long-term depression. The music transcends all of this. The Second Symphony’s melodies blossom and soar with gratitude, passion for life, and sensuality. Similar to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the first movement’s opening motive runs like a thread through the entire work.

The opening of the second movement hints at the Dies Irae (from the Roman Catholic mass for the Dead), which shows up throughout Rachmaninov’s music. Brief, passing motives throughout the movement return in later pieces, such as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances (listen to the flute and clarinet lines at 18:06 and the four note motive at the end of the fugue section at 20:30).

The opening of the third movement shows us all of its cards up front, embracing us with an expansive statement of the movement’s main theme before moving away. This theme returns in the final movement at a moment when we least expect it. One of my favorite passages begins at 29:36, as the music reaches increasingly higher toward its climax. Listen to the way the horn line soars above the strings.

The final movement explodes with joyful exuberance, at moments paying homage to Tchaikovsky. We hear hints of the adventures of the previous movements, and then have a sense of spirited transcendence.

  1. Largo — Allegro moderato 0:00
  2. Allegro molto 16:00
  3. Adagio 24:26
  4. Allegro vivace 35:29

  • Ormandy’s 1974 recording: iTunes, Amazon
  • Ormandy’s 1959 recording: ArkivMusic
  • Ormandy’s 1951 recording: iTunes
  • Charles Dutoit’s 1995 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra (excerpt)

Piano Concerto No. 3

This 1939 recording features Rachmaninov performing the Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 30, No. 3 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto 0:00
  2. Intermezzo: Adagio 13:50
  3. Finale: Alla breve 22:26

Vocalise

Rachmaninov conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for this 1929 recording. Here is Rachmaninov’s orchestral arrangement of Vocalise, Op.34 No.14:

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Here is a December 24, 1934 recording featuring Rachmaninov performing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with Leopold Stokowski conducting:

La Folia’s Endless Possibilities

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Good composers borrow. Great ones steal.

-Igor Stravinsky

La Folia, the ancient theme/chord progression which originated in Portuguese dance music as early as 1577, was borrowed (and stolen) by composers throughout the Baroque era. VivaldiScarlattiHandel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully were among the composers who took advantage of the theme’s endlessly rich musical possibilities. Later composers also paid homage to La Folia. It surfaces briefly at this moment in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Franz Liszt included it in his La Rhapsodie espagnole. Even contemporary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (of “diamond commercial” fame) has written his own La Folia variations for marimba and strings.

One of the most famous Baroque versions of La Folia was Arcangelo Corelli’s. In a 2013 Listeners’ Club post we explored a few contrasting performances of this music. Shinichi Suzuki’s La Folia in the opening of Suzuki Violin Book 6 is based loosely on Corelli’s piece.

Recently, I ran across another great La Folia performed by Spanish viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. No one is sure who wrote this piece. It is part of a collection of now anonymous music called Flores de Música (“Musical Flowers”), compiled by Spanish organist and composer Antonio Martín y Coll (died c. 1734). The viola da gamba is a stringed instrument which first appeared in Spain in the mid to late fifteenth century. You’ll notice a distinctly Spanish flavor in the instrumentation (castanets and the wood of the bow hitting the strings) and rhythm (1:04, for example). Listen closely to the way the guitar’s dance-like rhythm livens things up at 5:17.

At their best, theme and variations are about fun-loving virtuosity and a wide range of expression and drama. These aspects are on full display here:

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli

Now, let’s hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s 1931 Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Throughout twenty ferocious variations and a coda, the La Folia theme enters bold and adventurous new territory. Following the opening statement of the theme, the music begins quickly to move far afield harmonically. There’s a spirit of the “trickster” here as we’re thrown sudden curveballs (1:08). At the same time, it’s easy to sense something ominous and slightly gloomy under the surface. At moments we get the faintest glimpse of the outlines of the Dies Irae (the Latin “Day of Wrath” chant) which shows up in so much of Rachmaninov’s music. Listen for the ghoulish low notes around the 4:44 mark. As the final, solemn chord dies away, ghosts evaporate.

This work is dedicated to the violinist Fritz Kreisler, with whom Rachmaninov performed occasionally. Rachmaninov never recorded this piece. In a letter dated December 21, 1931 he lamented:

I’ve played the Variations about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t play my own compositions! And it’s so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I don’t remember where – some small town – the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of 20). My best record was set in New York, where I played 18 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them, and won’t “cough”.

You won’t hear any coughing or miss any skipped variations in Hélène Grimaud’s excellent 2001 recording:

Paganini’s Catchy Tune

Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini

It’s a simple and catchy melody…so memorable and ripe for development that, for over 200 years, composers haven’t been able to stop using it as the inspiration for an unending stream of variations. Set in A minor, the theme of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 bounces between tonic and dominant (scale degrees I and V), before entering a downward sequence which brings the melody home. A series of variations follow, which almost push the violin, and the violinist, to their limit. 

With Paganini, the age of the dazzling virtuoso rock star was born. Soloists such as Paganini and Franz Liszt became larger-than-life heroes, mesmerizing audiences in Europe’s new public concert halls. Written between 1805 and 1809, Paganini’s 24 Caprices are a series of short, unaccompanied virtuoso miniatures. Each caprice features a unique technical challenge, from flying ricochet bowing, to left hand pizzicato, to fingered octaves and multiple stops. Caprice No. 24 is the collection’s electrifying finale.

Let’s start by listening to the catchy theme and variations which have inspired so many composers. Notice how many far-reaching variations spring from Paganini’s theme and the distinct atmosphere created by each variation. Consider the uniquely fun spirit surrounding a musical theme and variations. It’s as if the composer is saying, “Look what I can do!” Each musical adventure seems to eclipse the last, while, like jazz, it’s all based on the same blueprint or musical DNA.

Here is Caprice No. 24 played by Ilya Kaler:

Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini

While Paganini expanded the technical capabilities of the violin, Franz Liszt set out to revolutionize piano technique. In 1838 he published a collection of “studies” based on Paganini Caprices. Beyond the obvious virtuoso fireworks, the music exhibits a striking harmonic inventiveness. Listen to the almost demonic fifth variation (1:55), which would sound at home in a contemporary film soundtrack.

Here is Etude No. 6 performed by Jerome Rose:

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini

In 1863 Johannes Brahms wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35. Like Liszt, Brahms intended these variations to be “studies,” focusing on a variety of aspects of piano technique. He presented them in two books.

One of Brahms’ favorite compositional techniques is to shift our perception of the downbeat, causing us to become momentarily “lost”. Listen carefully and you’ll hear fairly shocking examples of this rhythmic complexity (3:31). Brahms also begins to move away from Paganini’s established harmonic blueprint into increasingly adventurous territory (4:55, 7:28, 8:47, 15:11, 20:09). The original motives are fragmented, turned upside down and re-harmonized. Suddenly new and strikingly different melodies and harmonies emerge.

Brahms achieves an amazing sense of drama in this piece. At times, it’s easy to hear distinct characters coming to life in the voices. Listen for conversations which take place between these voices, low and high.

Here is Andrea Bonatta:

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The most famous piece inspired by Caprice No. 24 is Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, written in 1934. Rachmaninov was the piano soloist at the premiere in Baltimore in November, 1934. The Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. You can hear Rachmaninov’s 1934 recording here.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a musical romp, incorporating all of the fun and virtuosity associated with a theme and variations, but also evoking a wide range of expression. The piece exudes a spirit of humor, from the simultaneously ferocious and comic opening bars, to the sly musical wink at the end. Rachmaninov throws us off guard, first presenting the first variation, a bare bones outline of the theme with the melody stripped away, and then Paganini’s original theme in the violins. In Variation VII the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) chant from the medieval Mass of the Dead emerges (3:29). Composers from Berlioz and Mahler to George Crumb have quoted the Dies Irae, but it seems to have had special significance for Rachmaninov, who returned to it in several compositions.

The famous 18th variation (15:05), which inverts the original theme and transposes it to D-flat major, is one of the piece’s most significant moments. As a musical event, it is set up by the two preceding variations, which gradually take us into a tunnel of darkness and anticipation. Listen carefully to the tension and drama in the inner voices, under the 18 variation’s melody line.

Here is a recording with Nikolai Lugansky and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra:

Coda

There are many other pieces inspired by Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Violinists from Eugene Ysaye to Nathan Milstein have put their own stamp on the music. In addition, listen to variations by Witold Lutoslawski, Benny GoodmanAndrew Lloyd Webber and a recent jazzy composition by Fazil Say.