The “Under a Minute” Waltz?
I’m sure there are violinists who run in marathons. But there probably are more violinists who run from one particular marathon. Only rarely do you notice that there’s a concert featuring the complete 24 caprices for unaccompanied violin by Nicolò Paganini.
Now and then there are some violinists who do stage that event. Start to finish it’s some 80 + minutes of music. That may not seem so bad compared to the time it takes to run a marathon. But the caprices are incredibly difficult to play. That’s to be expected. Paganini was a legendary 19th century violin virtuoso who is said to have possessed amazing musical abilities. His caprices are more like etudes or studies. Each is meant to focus on a different aspect of violin playing. They sound like musical equivalents of the most challenging exercise stations you ever would encounter on park trails. Violinists sometimes play one of the caprices as an encore, but few have chosen to “go the distance.” Yes, there are recordings of the complete caprices, but it’s not the same. Those have been assembled from studio takes which have been recorded over the course of hours, days or weeks.
I once attended a Paganini caprice recital. Let me assure you it can be a marathon of listening for the audience as well, particularly on a warm evening in a room with poor air circulation. For one thing, it was hard to tell whether the performer was perspiring because of nervousness, exertion or the room temperature. There were pauses now and then and an intermission, in case you wondered.
Almost like water stations at marathons, Paganini planted some great tunes among the caprices. They give violinists and even audiences a little boost along the way. One of those comes just after the halfway point. The tune of the 13th caprice has come to be known as “La chasse” or “The Hunt.” It’s like a violin imitating the sound of a hunter’s horn with the music charging forward. How appropriate for the home stretch of that marathon! Another great tune is introduced close to the finish line. The tune of the 24th and final caprice is the best known of all of them.
It’s at that point, when violinists are finishing up their Paganini marathon, that pianists might begin theirs. The tune of the 24th caprice has inspired a number of composers to write piano variations on it. Franz Liszt wrote 11 variations in his Paganini Etude No. 6 for the piano. It’s a 5-minute piece, just like Paganini’s original caprice, upon which it’s based. Johannes Brahms wrote 2 sets of variations on the tune – some 20 minutes worth for solo piano. Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra is a 25-minute work which includes 24 variations. The 18th variation introduces a tune that even upstages Paganini’s original tune. I haven’t heard of pianists playing all of those works in a single concert. It’s a thought. But even with all of the inventiveness that went into writing the variations, it’s the same tune. That would make the event more like running around a track than a marathon.
For those who like to have statistics attached to endurance events, here are a few which I came upon in the booklet which accompanies Salvatore Accardo’s recording of a Paganini piece titled Perpetuela (Deutsche Grammophon 463754). According to Edward Neill, there’s a note in the orchestral parts of the work which indicates that Paganini first performed it in Paris in 1832 and played the 2,242 notes in 3 minutes and 3 seconds at an average speed of about 12 notes per second. Just to remind you, that’s non-stop bowing.
Composers themselves have sometimes contributed to the competitive spirit of performances, intentionally or unintentionally. In certain pieces of music they have given the instructions: “presto,” which means to play very fast, or “prestissimo” – as fast as possible. Just for fun, I once looked into the clocked speeds of various pianists’ recordings of Chopin’s so-called “Minute” Waltz over the years. The famous Waltz in D flat major, op. 64, no. 2 by Chopin, which has come to be known as the “Minute” Waltz, is never played in a minute. That would spoil its character and charm. Performance time is closer to 2 minutes. The title is said to have come from a tall tale about Chopin having been inspired to write the waltz while watching his cat chasing its tail. Chopin never gave it that title. And hopefully, we won’t see oddsmakers getting involved in Chopin recitals that feature the waltz.
The German pianist Christian Zacharias seems to have consulted the oddsmakers years ago. He told Michael Church of London’s The Independent that when he was very young, he observed that in any generation, there was just one internationally important pianist in any given country, or at most two. He concluded that it was more likely that you’d become your country’s prime minister than you would its top pianist. He went on to say that he decided to give it a try until he was 25. If it worked by then, he would stick at it. But if he was still sitting by the phone waiting for concerts, he would give up and do something else. It worked, to say the least. Christian Zacharias is an internationally-known conductor as well as pianist. I haven’t heard any mention that he’s interested in becoming a prime minister (or chancellor, as the government head is known in Germany). He has been the artistic director of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra in Switzerland for 15 years now. We celebrated his 65th birthday on April 27th.
What are the odds that several Van Cliburn Competition medalists would celebrate major birthdays in the same month? Besides Christian Zacharias celebrating his 65th, Christina Ortiz celebrated her 65th , Barry Douglas turned 55 and Olga Kern 40 in April. We celebrated along with them.
I couldn’t imagine listeners wouldn’t guess that it was actor Anthony Quinn’s centennial we were celebrating on April 21st if I played music from the film Zorba the Greek. To make my little “guess who? Prelude at least a momentary contest, I preceded that music with the theme from the Fellini film La Strada in which Quinn also starred. There were other pieces I could have played, but not as recognizable by a general audience. I’d like to have seen how quickly some listeners jumped up when they heard the give-away clue, which I said was coming. I can only imagine. But it’s my anticipation of listener reactions that helps to fuel the program each morning.
Wait until you hear what I have for you on upcoming programs! Join us for Classic Mornings, Monday through Friday from 9-noon, with the Classic Morning Prelude just before at 8:50, on FM 90.9 and online at will.illinois.edu.