Lessons for Rufus: Writing for strings (3) PAGANINI!

July 7, 2006

Prof. Berlioz made the mistake of eating a chocolate dessert at dinner time and, like clockwork, woke up at 3 am. It occurs to him that he should introduce his young student to the great violinist, Paganini.


It occurs to me that I can trust you to be advanced enough to throw some spice into the mix. Not too much, but better to take a risk than to run the risk of boring me. Here is some music you may or may not like, but it’s important to examine technically to see what is possible.

The famous violinist, Joachim, who premiered the Brahms Violin Concerto, referred to the part as being written “against” rather than “for” the violin — implying it was extremely difficult music to play. This could easily have been written about Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840) as well, that famous viloinist/composer who might as well have been the first rock star. Rob Walser might even suggest that Paganini is proto-metal musician. He played the violin 15 hours a day, had a genetic quirk that gave his fingers a flexibility rarely seen. Paganini had a difficult time resisting virtuosity in his own compositons. I’m not going to tell you that I think he was a truly great composer. I think his best piece is the Op.1, 24 Caprices, the last one being a set of variations that many composers have orchestrated and expanded upon. I have scanned a few excerpts I’d like you to examine.

Before we look at some advanced examples of solo violin writing, let’s take a look at the total range of the string section. Here is a conservative approximation of the whole ensemble. The double basses SOUND an octave lower than notated.


The homogeneity of the string section is a very powerful one, and one that has a tremendous blend. Orchestral string writing is usually less intricate and difficult than composing for a single instrument. Remember this when you look at the examples below.

Here is an example of parallel consecutive intervals: thirds, and “big thirds” or tenths.


I love this next texture quite a lot. It is a great accompanimental pattern and generates a lot of momentum. It is an apreggiated figure using mostly 4-note chords. The bow is drawn across the strings in one direction, lo to hi, 4-3-2-1 and then goes back the other way, hi to lo, 1-2-3-4. There is a slur over the first four notes, indicating that the bow does all in one directions, and the next four notes. In this example, there are staccati over the notes, which is likely the work of the editor and not Paganini. The staccati indicate to me, a little air between each note. The symbol above the first note indicates a downbow. The numbers are suggested fingerings by the editor.

This next figure is usually only found in solo work in that the violinist is accompanying themself with little two note tremolo chords. It’s tricky but effective if you can bring it off.


My sleeping draught is kicking in, so I’ll leave you with one last example of fun violin writing. In solos, sonatas, and especially concertos, the soloist has a cadenza where s/he can show off their virtuosity. In this passage, there is no meter. The “little” notes, or grupetti, or grace notes, are played out of time and usually as fast as possible. In this cadenza, the name for the solo, you’ll see scales and arpeggios. All good string players have spent their childhood playing such figures, so it should be no surprise that they can play them at blazing speeds!


I’m looking forward to seeing your work. Good night!

Prof. Bz.

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