The G minor Capriccio No 16 is where I feel most in the presence of Bach, or at the very least, that Paganini was very aware of Bach’s legacy for solo violin. This can be more obviously witnessed in the elegant chordal writing of the Capriccio No 11. But the Bach-ian allusion in the 16th Caprice seems more mysterious. After all the musical argument of this piece might be seen as running clean contrary to the language and intent of the Sonatas and Partitas .
Paganini’s work is all about mobility, of the left and right arms, across the violin and lengthwise along it. In this, it is quietly revolutionary, and is extremely ungainly to play with the ‘modern’ hold. It is one of the Capricci which best illustrates the benefits of the Paganini’s ‘locked thumb’ position, the violin held low, so that the hands can move around the instrument with least interference from gravity.
But what is perhaps most Bach-like, and perhaps unexpected from this source, is Paganini’s ability to render such a tight discourse all over the map of the violin, to cover such vertiginous heights in this, the most succinct, the tightest wound, of all the Capricci. No. 16 It is laconic almost to the point of gruffness; there are no diversions, no episodes to distract from its explosive trajectory. This is energised by the opening rhythmic emphasis, a springboard of a major ninth, not so very different from the beginning of the Presto movement that finishes Bach’s Sonata BWV1001. This Capriccio seems, to me, to be Paganini’s attempt to ‘reduce’ this movement, to propell it into the future, after setting Bach’s voice in acerbic dialogue with his own.
But this Capriccio has another side. It has played a part in creating or preserving the latterday Satanic cult around Paganini. The most powerful cinematic representation of the diabolic violinist in recent years, has been the ten seconds or so that Jack Nicolson plays, or rather, gives the illusion of playing, the violin, in The Witches of Eastwick. Of course, he later famously immolates Susan Sarandon’s cello whilst she plays Dvorak, but it seems to have escaped general notice that he gives a highly dramatised reading of the coda from the Capriccio No 16 first. nNicholson has been cunningly filmed from behind the violin, in close-up profile, so that his complete lack of violinistic aptitude is invisible. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful attempt on the diabolic legend of Paganini, a legend that is all the more curious for being projected onto the Capricci. After all, Rakhmaninov had to resort to the somewhat desparate measure of incorporating the Dies Irae into his gloss on the the Capriccio No. 24 to hammer this point home.
On the whole, the Capricci resist the myth of the later, dark Paganini, despite the popular conception that they might embody him. This was no doubt the logic of the use of this extract in The Witches of Eastwick; however successful its use here, it is a useful indicator of the lengths to which it is necessary to go to force the Capricci into thte diabolical cliché which Paganini allowed to be built around himself.
As Heine noted: “Only in crude, black and fugitive strokes, can those supernatural features be limned-features that seem to belong rather to those sulphurous realm of shadows rather than the sunny world of living beings. His long black hair fell in twisted locks about his shoulders and formed a dark frame around a pale corpse-like face, on which trouble, genius and hell had graved their indelible marks.”