The violinist illustrates her love of Paganini’s 24th Caprice with why she commissioned twelve composers to write a new variation on the theme


Fenella Humphreys © Alejandro Tamagno

I originally started thinking about the Caprices about 5 years ago when I was asked to perform all of Paganini’s 24 Caprices in a concert. I’d had a stupid block about them since I was 14, when my new teacher had told me I wasn’t good enough to play Paganini, leading me to avoid them ever since. I agreed to the concert, thinking it was a perfect opportunity to ditch that demon at long last. I got the music and as I started working on them I realised it would help to have something in my comfort zone to sweeten things. So I asked a couple of composers if they’d hypothetically be up for writing a variation on the 16-bar theme of Paganini 24. 

And then of course the concert got cancelled. 

But I’d already realised by then that Paganini’s Caprices can actually be fun! The more I discovered the diversity of the music out there, the more obsessed I became with caprices, etudes and studies. I started putting together programming ideas and commissioning some completely new works. 

I also went back to the composers to see if they might still be up for writing their little 16-bar variations. The resulting set is written by a group of wonderfully generous friends and follows Paganini’s pattern of Theme, eleven variations and a finale. Like Paganini, they throw in everything including the kitchen sink, both in terms of technique and musical ideas. The individuality and imagination across the set is really something.

Niccolò Paganini - Tema, Quasi Presto - I’ve always loved Paganini’s theme: quirky and cheeky, it’s a perfect invitation to be creative.

Andra Patterson - Vivace - Andra takes rhythmic ideas, displaced melodic material, sniffs each bar of ideas from Paganini’s original variations, double stops, a bit of col legno - it feels like his quirkiness is taken to a whole new level.

Laura Reid - Fierce - this variation takes the basic harmony and reduced shape of Paganini’s theme, and fills it with full-on attitude.

Emily Howard - Lockdown - Written during lockdown, this variation takes a row made of all the notes in Paganini’s theme to extremes of dynamics, playing with silences, taking me right up to the top of the G string. The music finally pares back to Paganini’s tonal centre of A & E, and then just disappears to nothing.

Sally Beamish - Paganini Variation - This builds on the bones of the first bar of Paganini’s theme. Jumping right around the violin, rests become as rhythmically important and weighty as the notes themselves. The music is full of quirky grit and bristles with energy.

Stuart MacRae - Variation on Caprice 24 - Improvisatory and beautiful, Stuart extends Paganini’s chord sequence, varying the lengths of bars and harmonies. He rocks up and down the broken chords freely in this most rhapsodic of the variations.

Adrian Sutton - Pagvar - Paganini would definitely have written the original in 5/16 if he’d heard this. It flies and dances around the violin with plenty of double stops and chords thrown in for good measure

Alexandra Harwood - Never Forget - Alex wrote her variation around the time of Holocaust Memorial Day. Her slow, tender reflection on Paganini’s original is quietly heartbreaking.

Piers Hellawell - This one’s a searching study in left-hand pizzicato and harmonics, and definitely keeps your fingers fit.

James Joslin - Paganini Cut-Up - Each bar of James’s variation started life in one of Paganini’s. After creating a jigsaw puzzle of Paganini’s original, he began to mess with it, changing rhythms and notes, taking it to brilliant new places.

Robin Haigh - Samoyed Paganini - Robin wrote his variation when he’d just finished a string quartet called Samoyed, about howling samoyed dogs. He takes Paganini’s harmony as a base, and applies glissandos in double stops, with each finger moving independently. It creates an eerie but strangely beautiful sound world.

Héloïse Werner - Cheeky and Excited (like a child) - This variation for me is the hardest - because the performer has to sing, and I’m rubbish! As you’d guess from the title, it’s full of humour and wit, alternating speaking, singing and playing, within the structure of Paganini’s original theme.

Seonaid Aitken - Gypsy Jazz - Seonaid sent me two versions of this variation: one at 16-bars, and then an extended version which perfectly takes the place of Paganini’s Finale. With swung semiquavers ‘alla Grappelli’, this piece finishes off the set in barn-stomping fashion with fireworks that Paganini would have been proud of!

Fenella Humphreys will perform Variations on Paganini’s 24th Caprice on Saturday 25 June at the Up Close and Musical Festival.