According to Wikipedia (my indispensable online reference source), Niccolò Paganini, who lived from 1782 to 1840, “…was an Italian violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer. He was one of the most celebrated violin virtuosi of his time, and left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique. His Caprice No. 24 in A minor, Op. 1, is among the best known of his compositions, and has served as an inspiration for many prominent composers.”
The author of that article might well have said “…an inspiration par excellence…” Thought to date from 1805, this Caprice has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for composers from Paganini’s day to our own, but before listening to two of the pieces that owe their existence to it, let’s listen to Paganini’s original composition, as performed by the extraordinary Hilary Hahn.
The first composer to use Paganini’s theme as the basis for one of his own works was Robert Schumann, who wrote his Etudes After Paganini Caprices for solo piano in 1832. Schumann was followed by Liszt, who adopted it in the sixth of his Grandes Études de Paganini, written in 1838 and revised in 1851. Liszt was followed by Brahms, who wrote his epic Variations on a Theme of Paganini in 1862-63.
Enthusiasm for Paganini’s theme continued undiminished during the twentieth century. Perhaps the best known work it inspired was Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, composed in 1934. Shortly thereafter, Witold Lutosławski, a Polish composer who lived from 1913 to 1994, wrote his Variations on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos in 1940-41, and revised it in 1978 for piano and orchestra. This piece was my introduction to the music of Lutosławski, and I’m pleased to be able to introduce him to you. It is the first version that we hear here, in a brilliant performance by the duo piano team of Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire.
That brings us to the present, or at least to the year 2011, when the incomparable Canadian pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Concerning this piece, Hamelin writes, “The nature of my Paganini Variations is such that writing anything about them would inevitably spoil the fun and give many things away.” With that in mind, I will say only that you should be on the qui vive for multiple allusions to other composers, and that Hamelin wrote this piece with tongue firmly in cheek.