Paganini is famous for writing the technically most challenging and demanding pieces in the world. Many musicians find the works to be downright superhuman and they push the ability of the instrument and the player to the limits.
Niccolò Paganini, equivalent to Franz Liszt for the piano, is said to be a showman who liked to make his compositions so challenging that at the time, only he would be able to play it the way he did it. His technical abilities were so extraordinary that there were stories in circulation that he was in league with the devil and that he had been imprisoned for murder.
Although Paganini worked unbelievably hard to obtain the level of skill he had, it is believed that he had the Marfan syndrome which made his hands longer and more flexible than usual which could help reaching the tenths for example.
Techniques invented by Paganini include double harmonics (flageolets), left hand pizzicato, intervals of more than 2 octaves, deliberately tuning the violin to another frequency to give the tone an extra effect, and new bow techniques like spiccato. To find more of Paganini, click here.
1. Violin Concerto No. 1
His first violin concerto turned out to be one of the greatest concertos ever written. What is so interesting about it in particular, is that not many composers have the right to say that the techniques within the piece are invented and have been played by themselves, which Paganini did have. It is said that Paganini didn't publicize the compositions to guarantee some authenticity, which actually lead to audience members writing it down at live performances.
2. Caprice No. 1
Although the list of compositions publicized by Paganini isn't that lengthy, the ones he did publicize have gotten great attention. His 24 caprices are definitely part of these compositions and are characterized by legato, staccato, spiccato, tremolo, harmony, trills, arpeggios, scales, ricochet and pizzicato. This piece specifically, consists largely of ricochet with descending scales in thirds for a big part.
3. Caprice No. 9
The Paganini caprices simply won't get boring and this caprice proves the premise right. Despite its short nature, it has a story-line similar to the title: The Hunt. It begins with an imitation of the flutes with double stops with the A and E strings after which the G and D strings play the horn. It also makes use of ricochet in the middle section and the technical difficulty and variety of this piece, makes it into a true artwork.
4. Violin Concerto No. 2 - 3rd movement
This piece has been an inspiration for Franz Liszt who has made a widely successful variation on this piece: La Campanella. If you haven't heard this melody in violin form, you're likely to have heard it in piano form. The nickname of this piece is 'La Campanella' which translated from Italian, means 'Little Bell' which Paganini prescribes to presage each recurrence of the rondo theme. It has certainly deserved its status and place in this top 10 with the influence it has had in the world of classical music.
5. Grande Sonata
Although many people know Paganini for his violin compositions, he wrote solo pieces, duo-sonatas, trios and quartets for the guitar too. This particular piece has actually been one of his first compositions and it proved to be the beginning of a successful career with a piece that came to be one of his most popular pieces. Paganini sticks to his tradition of composing notorious technically difficult compositions and clearly doesn't make exceptions for the guitar.
6. Caprice No. 24
It is seen as one of the most iconic classical piece of music for the violin. If you're new to the world of classical music, this is a great starter. There is a lot of action going on and many advanced techniques are used, such as left hand pizzicato, parallel octaves, tenths, rapid shifting, difficult string crossings, extremely fast scales, arpeggios and double and triple stops, so don't expect to play this within just a couple of years practice. It has been used as the basis of many other pieces by a variety of composers and rightfully so.
7. Moto Perpetuo
A very rhythmic piece which correlates to its name: Perpetual Motion, which falls right into the rest of Paganini's repertoire. At the time writing this piece, his health was declining so he may have written this piece to challenge the flexibility of his left hand, although it challenges your stamina and coordination too. It is a bit similar to Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Flight of the Bumblebee' in the sense of the quick semiquavers and giving musicians a headache.
8. Variations on God save the King
Many composers have written variations on the piece 'God save the King', which of course is the anthem of the British Empire. Beethoven's 7 Variations for Piano in C major on "God Save the King", WoO 78 is among the most famous ones, although Liszt, Rossini and Charles Ives wrote variations on it too. Of course, Paganini couldn't resist making it extremely difficult to play but still, it deserved a neat 8th place on this lis(z)t.
9. Nel cor più non mi sento
Nel cor più non mi sento is one of the themes of the opera La Molinara from 1788 by the Italian composer Paisiello. This theme was immortalized by Beethoven by composing six variations on it, the same year. Later, in 1821, Paganini also composed seven variations on that theme and this is the result. It is regarded as one of the most difficult pieces in violin repertoire, although it isn't the first time that you're able to say that with the works of Paganini. The techniques used in this piece are truly pushing it to the extreme limits of the violin.
This piece is seen by many as the most beautiful piece that Paganini wrote. You heard it right. When thinking of Paganini, beautiful isn't the first adjective coming to mind, although it is with this piece that he Paganini's wide variety of abilities comes to light. It's nothing totally spectacular or out of this world for a change but don't underestimate the challenge of phrasing it in a way that makes it sound this beautiful as Leonid Kogan is able to make it sound.