No 1: Étude in G minor 'Tremolo'
No 2: Étude in E flat major 'Octave'
No 3: Étude in G sharp minor 'La campanella'
No 4: Étude in E major 'Arpeggio'
No 5: Étude in E major 'La chasse'
No 6: Étude in A minor 'Theme and variations'
Such was the impression that the legendary Italian virtuoso created at his Paris debut. A year later he was back in the city, then in the grip of a cholera epidemic, for a further nine concerts. It was then, and with no less astonishment, that the young Franz Liszt first heard the great violinist on 22 April 1832 at a benefit concert in the Opéra given for ‘the victims of the cruel scourge which is ravaging the capital’. Liszt was not yet twenty-one and the sight and sound of Paganini struck him like a coup de foudre. He was mesmerised. No musician before Paganini had been able to combine the supreme mastery of an instrument with hypnotic dramatic power to such an extent, enabling him to rouse an audience to a frenzy of enthusiasm. It was the catalyst for which Liszt had been searching. ‘René, what a man, what a violinist, what an artist!’ Liszt wrote to a friend in Geneva. ‘Heavens! What sufferings, what misery, what tortures in those four strings.’ Remarkable as his own technique was, Liszt realised that compared with Paganini’s wizardry he had much to learn. He resolved consciously to turn himself into the pianistic equivalent of the demonic Italian. A few days after Paganini’s third concert (27 April), he penned this to another friend, Pierre Wolff, on 2 May 1832: ‘For this fortnight my mind and my fingers have worked like two damned ones. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber, are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them furiously. In addition, I practice exercises for four or five hours (thirds, sixths, octaves, and tremolos, repeated notes, cadenzas, etc.). Ah, unless I go mad, you will find an artist in me. Yes, an artist such as you desire, such as is required nowadays.’
This, then, is the background to the composition of the Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini. The first fruit of his Paganini-inspired labours was the Grande Fantaisie de bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini (S420) which appeared in 1832. It utilises material from the last movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 2 in B minor. Its main theme, itself based on an old Italian melody, is familiar from Paganini’s inclusion of a little bell in the score (hence its nickname of ‘La Clochette’ and, in Liszt’s later study using the same theme, ‘La Campanella’). The ‘Clochette’ fantasy remains one of the most extraordinarily difficult works ever written for the piano but, as Busoni noted, ‘ the work shows an original mind peeping through, a constrained emotion struggling for expression’. There are spiccato effects and terrifying leaps with which Liszt sought to simulate Paganini’s dizzying violin feats.
Liszt published his Six études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini in 1838. They can reasonably be claimed to mark the birth of keyboard virtuosity. He followed this set in 1845 with the Carnival de Venise and a second fantasy using the ‘Clochette’ theme, finally introducing a revised version of the six studies (retitled Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini) in 1851. Numbers 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 are versions of Paganini’s Twenty-four Caprices Op 1 for solo violin, composed between 1800 and 1810, but not published until 1820. In part a homage to the similarly titled Twenty-four Caprices by Pietro Locatelli (1695–1764), Paganini’s set is a sui generis compendium of the violin’s utmost resources with a profusion of daring melodic and physical leaps, multiple stops, spectacular passagework and challenging arco and pizzicato combinations. Among the effects Paganini asks for are ricochet (bouncing several notes on a bow), martellato (a ‘hammered’ stroke) and guitar-like tremolos (Paganini was a virtuoso on this instrument, too). Only No 3 of the Paganini-Liszt studies derives its material from elsewhere: the ‘clochette/campanella’ theme from the Second Violin Concerto.
Both the 1838 and 1851 sets were dedicated to ‘Frau Dr. Clara Schumann’ (despite her ingratitude), whose husband had been the first composer to transfer Paganini’s Caprices to the piano. Robert Schumann’s more literal Six Studies after Caprices by Paganini, Op 3, had appeared in 1832, followed by a further six (a rather more imaginative set, Op 10) in 1833. But Schumann was generous enough to write fulsomely of his friend’s superior accomplishment. ‘The collection is probably the most difficult ever written for the pianoforte, as its original is the most difficult work that exists for the violin. Paganini knew this well, and expressed it in his fine short dedication, “agli artisti”—that is to say, “I am only accessible to artists”. And so it is with Liszt’s pianoforte arrangement; this can only be understood by virtuosos in profession and of rank. […] He who is able to master [the variations of Etude No 6], and in such an easy, sportive manner that they glide past the hearer—as they should—like the scenes from a marionette show, may travel securely round the world, to return crowned with the golden laurels of a second Liszt-Paganini.’
The studies are listed with the nicknames that have become attached to them in some quarters.
No 1 in G minor (‘Tremolo’) based on Paganini Caprices Nos 5 and 6
In the Sixth Caprice Paganini imitates two violinists at once, one playing a constant tremolo, the other a slow lyrical melody. Though faithfully following Paganini’s text, Liszt prefaces and concludes his pianistic transformation with the opening and closing passages of the Caprice No 5.
No 2 in E flat major (‘Octave’) based on Paganini Caprice No 17
For the violinist, an exercise in stunning mobility and, in the central section, octaves; for the pianist, the challenge is in the chromatic sixths for alternating hands, scales in tenths and double octave passages.
No 3 in G sharp minor (‘La Campanella’) based on the Rondo (third movement) of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 2 in B minor
The most famous piece of the set, ‘La Campanella’ is alone in having a different tonality to Paganini’s original. In the first (1838) version of the study Liszt transposed the theme from B minor to A flat minor; in this 1851 version it is notated in G sharp minor. The delicacy of the conception conflicts with the tricky jumps, dazzling effects (mostly at the upper end of the keyboard) and demanding repeated-note sections.
No 4 in E major (‘Arpeggio’) based on Paganini Caprice No 1
Markedly simplified from its 1838 version which added a melodic counterpoint to the arpeggios of the left hand, the second version of Etude No 4 is laid out on a single stave, a visual parallel of Paganini’s score. The broken chord pattern is ingeniously distributed between alternate hands.
No 5 in E major (‘La Chasse’) based on Paganini Caprice No 9
The easiest of the set in technical terms, ‘La Chasse’ translates the violinist’s double-stopping into pianistic terms. The opening phrase, which both Paganini and Liszt mark imitando il Flauto, is answered by a similar phrase in thirds and sixths marked imitando il Corno. The violin’s upward swoops in the central A minor section are replicated by double glissandi.
No 6 in A minor (‘Theme and variations’) based on Paganini Caprice No 24
So many composers have written variations on the theme of the 24th Caprice (Brahms, Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski the most notable) that it must be one of the most recognizable tunes in the world. Paganini wrote eleven variations and a coda, a pattern which Liszt follows.
from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2002