George Rochberg’s ‘Caprice Variations’: A Resource Page

Posted on June 29th, 2020 by

Working on the violin concerto with George Rochberg, Saarbrucken, March 2002. Photo: Chris Lyndon-Gee
Playlist of my recordings of the 50 Caprice Variations, Violin Sonata, Concerto and Quartet – by track for ease of reference

Rochberg – Caprice Variations. Style and Character:

The full version of Caprice Variations, with all the repeats as Rochberg wanted them, runs for just under 90 minutes. Here it is, at my desk, in a ‘straight-through’ performance recorded yesterday morning -29th June 2020
George Rochberg – Pachelbel Variations (orchestrated Peter Sheppard Skaerved). Zagreb Soloists, Lisinski Concert Hall, Zagreb, Directed by Peter Sheppard Skaerved

My collaboration and friendship with the great George Rochberg began in 1998, at his cottage in Newtown Square, Pa. It was in this room that we would meet and play, talk, argue, and dream of music.

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George Rochberg’s 90-minute-long set of variations sets up multiple dialogues with and around Paganini, referencing Webern, Mahler, Brahms, and Tin-Pan-Alley, amongst many others. It is the epitome of what might be called the ‘post-modern’ violin, at once, that the player is able to adopt the many characters, musical and technical, to be found in the score, and that they are able to keep this kaleidoscope going, without exhausting themselves and their listeners. How do we practice and prepare for such physical and dramatic challenges?

One of my working scores of the Caprice Variations, with technical amendments that I made between 2003 and 2007

I worked very closely with George Rochberg in the last 6 years of this great composer’s life. In his posthumous -published autobiography, ‘Five Lines & Four Spaces’, Rochberg wrote about the first time that he heard me play the’CVs’ live – in Philadelphia: ‘ It was an amazing display of sheer technical prowess and bravura, emotionally rich in projection, musicianly to the nth degree. Peter has a thoroughly personal way of performing – especially solo music. Extraordinarily free and unstudied his his physical motions, his body is loose yet graceful. The marvel is that his playing is always controlled; he knows exactly what he wants with each figure, phrase, musical gesture.’

George and I spoke and length, and repeatedly over the years, about the meaning of what he called the ‘CVs’. Paganini’s Theme (from his 24th Caprice-itself a much smaller set of variations) appears at the end, not the beginning. One of George’s many ideas about the theme was that Paganini was a channel for music which had come before and after him. Four years after the picture below was taken, we came up with a way of revealing he them in a way which made  the point. This final version, which was, very much his wish, was that, in the cloud of harmonics which ends Variation 50 which precedes the Theme, I should turn my back to the audience, and play the theme following, pianissimo, ‘quasi lontano’. 

Working on Caprice Variations with George Rochberg. Summer 2000, Newtown Square. Photo, Gene Rochberg

But I would like to begin with the variation which I am revising today: 

No 41: Allegro Molto (After Webern Passacaglia, Op 1)

This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest pieces of writing for the violin. In fact, George liked it so much that he used it again, in one of his last works ‘Rhapsody & Prayer’. He drew a straight line from Paganini to Webern’s 1908 Passacaglia, which itself refers back to the 17th and 18th Century.  Rochberg’s own relationship with the work of Schoenberg and his two great students was akin to Jacob and the Angel, and the extreme physicality of this 40 seconds of violin music is a model of that agon-ised dialogue. The enormous leaps across the instrument. and the bone-shivering demands on the left hand are the human condition in extremis. Here’s my newly revised score. Even decades into my relationship with the piece, there’s always work to do…

Rochberg sets up a conversation between Paganini and Webern.

Listening to the track, you will notice (you could hardly fail to ) that my performance is fairly wild and very far from clinical. I made two versions of this when I recorded it and send them to George. One is a faithful rendition of the score,  and in the other one, I pretty much exploded on the violin. He was adamant: ‘The crazy one … this is what my music does’, he insisted on the phone, when I asked him which he would choose.

George Rochberg with Marius Sheppard Skaerved. Newton Sq. , PA, 2001

A week before he died, George said to me: “You know, I have spent my life making a lot of noise, a tremendous racket.. I think that the time has come to be quiet, to leave the noise making to others. It’s your turn now…”