We do not know when Nicolע Paganini (1782–1840) wrote his famous twentyfour Capricci for solo violin. One supposition is that they were written at different intervals during his youth, but this cannot be proved. The autograph contains the date 24. 9bre 1817, but not in Paganini’s hand. The Capriccios did not appear in print until three years later.
This was Paganini’s first work to reach print, at a time when the composer was a full 38 years old. At the same time his twelve sonatas for violin and guitar opp. 2 and 3, and his six uartets for strings and guitar opp. 4 and 5, were likewise published.
The term capriccio was originally used primarily for pieces of a contrapuntal character, but its meaning changed in the course of the eighteenth century. Thereafter it stood for bravura solo cadenzas in sonatas and concertos, as for example in P. Locatelli’s twelve violin concertos op. 3 of 1733 (entitled L’arte del violino), where twenty-four ad libitum capricci are added as cadenzas to the first and last movements. At the same time, e. g. in the work of Fiorillo, Kreutzer and Rode, exer Kreutzer and Rode, exercise pieces cise pieces for string instruments were also referred to as capricci or caprices. The fusion of these two forms – the concert cadenza and the instrumental יtude – was one of Paganini’s major artistic accomplishments.
With this he gave a new musical dimension and new expressive resources to the capriccio. Brilliant, seemingly improvisatory cascades of notes, almost bursting with melodic variety, are put into a clear, ingenious and self-contained form with regard to their structure and execution, yet without sacrificing anything of that ever-surprising momentary charm that distinguished the capriccio of the baroque period. At the same time, Paganini turns what was originally purely didactic music into pedagogical and artistic masterpieces of the highest order, works which in their exemplary perfection have retained a timeless validity. For the violinist bent on perfection he created a fundamental corpus of proficiency material embodying all of the new technical possibilities which he had worked out for his instrument.
Paganini’s own goal, however, was primarily to cast his newly attained instrumental facility into a straightforward and valid mould – a goal, incidentally, which was likewise sought by Chopin in his יtudes for the novel technical and expressive possibilities that he had developed on the piano. Paganini’s work set the foundation for the emergence of the romantic concert etude, a genre requiring consummate technical perfection which reached its culmination in the piano works of Liszt.
The novelty of Paganini’s capriccios, however, lies not just in their technical demands but in their musical aspect as well. They demonstrate on the one hand an extreme virtuosity, driven to the utmost limits of the possible, while on the other hand they also reveal a completely new artistic perfection. Musical substance and technical difficulty are subjected – and here lies a further parallel to Chopin’s יtudes – to the highest demands, merging in the organic unity of a work of art which exudes creative vitality and makes us forget its difficulties of execution.