Nine Variants on Paganini for Double Bass and Piano

By Frank Proto

Niccolo Paganini’s 24th Violin Caprice has inspired composers for many generations. The simple 16-measure tune lends itself both melodically and harmonically to a myriad of treatments from styles classical to the avant-garde. If there were such a thing as repertoire for composers this little melody would certainly occupy a prominent spot. Whether writing short variations on the melody or developing longer songs or movement-like segments using mainly its harmonic underpinnings, it is one of those challenges that - when all’s said & done - is just plain fun.

Working with the 24th Caprice though usually implies more than just fun. Paganini (1782-1840) is still regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time. Though ill for much of his life, he managed to transform the technique of the violin both as a performer and a composer, influencing giants such as Robert Schumann, Berlioz, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Liszt and Lutoslawski. If there is one word that comes to mind when thinking of Paganini that word has to be virtuoso. So here is where we want to have some great fun. But here is where we also run into a bit of trouble, because for the performer it is not easy fun – although easy is the way it has to appear to the audience.

All ages have their virtuosi and ours is no exception. For us double bassists, through the efforts of some exceptional performers and teachers, the past 50 years or so have also seen a great advancement in the playing technique of our instrument. One of these performers is François Rabbath whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with for the past 40 years. Rabbath (born in 1931) has helped to transform the playing technique of the instrument both through his performing and more importantly, by documenting his very unique technique in his multi-volume method: Nouvelle Technique de la Contrebasse (A New Technique for the Double Bass). He possesses an astounding, Paganini-like technique and is one of those virtuosi who have the ability to make the extremely difficult sound easy. The Nine Variants was composed for and dedicated to him.

François Rabbath performed the world premiere performance of the Nine Variants on Paganini for Double Bass and Orchestra with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra on March 31, 2002.

World Premiere Performance
Catalog Information
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Paganini in Metropolis
for Clarinet and Orchestra
for Clarinet and Wind Symphony

By Frank Proto

Paganini in Metropolis is the third in a series of works composed on the famous Twenty-fourth Caprice for Solo Violin, by the legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini, for present-day virtuosos. The first was written for trumpeter Doc Severinsen and the second for double bassist François Rabbath.

The final work, Paganini in Metropolis was created for clarinetist Eddie Daniels. The first version of the work, for clarinet and Wind Symphony was premiered on February 20, 2002 with the University of Texas Wind Ensemble conducted by Jerry Junkin. Daniels also premiered the second version, for clarinet and Orchestra with the Santa Fe Symphony under the baton of David Wroe on February 15, 2003

Paganini's little tune has been subjected to countless transformations, mutations and conversions into and out of shapes and styles both familiar and totally alien to his original conception. Composers from Brahms and Blacher to Rachmaninoff and Wilby have had their go at it. So have performers from Benny Goodman to Nathan Milstein. If a list of source-material was created for composers - we might call it required repertoire for all composers - this little melody would certainly occupy a prominent spot.

In 2001 Eddie Daniels and I were tossing about ideas for a new piece to showcase his unique talents on a concert he was scheduled to perform a few months later with the University of Texas Wind Ensemble. There are many fine performers who are known either as classical artists who can play some credible jazz or conversely, jazz artists who are well rounded enough to perform in orchestras or play an occasional solo. That list however, thins down to the low single digits when it comes to performers that can operate at the highest levels both technically and musically in both of these areas. Eddie"s comfort zone extends from the most sophisticated chamber music works, where blending with string players in every possible musical situation, from walking on egg shells pianissimos to extreme virtuoso ensemble playing, where everything has to be together and perfectly in tune or it just doesn"t work, to playing, or actually taking the lead roll, in bebop groups, that thrive on endless choruses at take no prisoners tempos, that can quickly humble even the most inspired and technically proficient jazz players.

What better source material for our project than Paganini, whose name alone conjures up images of extreme virtuosity? He was known as a Hexensohn (witch's brat) and people, speculating on his astonishing technical facility, spread rumors that attributed his great talent to contracts that he made with the devil himself.

Paganini in Metropolis sets the solo clarinet in a musical zone that is extremely wide. Demanding delicate playing right from the start as the clarinet soars into its highest register, the variations on Paganini"s tune, all precisely notated, travel in the classical zone until roughly half way through the journey. At this point the soloist must transform into the improviser who must convince the listener that while he can now be considered the featured composer, Paganini is still very much in the picture. In other words, the skillful performer will not only strut his stuff, but not allow the listener to forget that these are still variations on the Twenty-fourth Caprice.