By Frank Proto
Niccolo Paganinis 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 alls 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 Ive 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.