The Violin - Show Pieces and Concert Etudes

Show pieces, Concert Etudes, and Caprices, are considered the territory of the violin virtuoso. This repertoire is not for the faint of heart! Much of this music, in fact pretty much all of it was written by violinists in need of beefing recital programs and enticing audiences to marvel at their abilities. Back in the old days (think centuries ago) if you wanted to be a successful touring virtuoso you could't just play music that already existed. Instead, it was in your best interests to compose your own music, create your own image and sound and showcase your strengths and abilities.

A Caprice or Concert Etude is defined as a particularly brilliant instrumental composition evolved from a single technical motive. This technical motive could be something for the left hand like fingered octaves, 10ths, lift hand pizzicato, chords, the use of extremely high positions, dramatic leaps etc. OR they could be for the bow and right hand. Sometimes, in the really high level repertoire they deal with a specific combination of left and right hand technical wizardry.

A show piece was often a character piece, a brief composition based on a well known theme, song or a transcription of a piece not originally composed for the violin.

Centuries ago violinists didn't perform Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Paganini, Vivaldi etc. the way we do now. Entire recitals were not filled with the music of others or music from the past. Violinists wrote music for specific reasons - to teach, to showcase, to self promote, to astonish, and to capture the full potential of the instrument. In this post there will be tons of videos, and recordings, a little bit of lore and some fun stories I've picked up from various masterclasses and teachers. Prepare to indulge in some amazing music and spectacular violin playing!

We will start this conversation in the late 18th century with Paganini. Paganini is one of the most famous violinists to ever live. He was a real trailblazer on the violin and was the first to push the potential of the instrument to the absolute limit (or at least what was considered the limit in his time). In fact, there is a book titled Violin Virtuosos: From Paganini to the 21st Century by Henry Roth that evaluates each violinist, as they compare to Paganini. His basic question is:  Is Paganini the best violinist to ever live? Who is the best violinist of all time? The Bios for each paint a great picture of the variety of personalities, that attain superstardom on the violin. Not all virtuoso violinists were composers as well. In fact, as time goes by fewer and fewer performers compose music - seemingly because they became more and more consumed with the demands of performing.

Niccolò Paganini was a violinist, violist, guitarist, composer and celebrity personality. Originally from Italy, he toured all over Europe as a performer. In my post on the violin concerto I talked briefly about Paganini and his contribution to the concerto genre but here we can expand on that. Paganini had Marfan Syndrome, as did Abraham Lincoln. It is a disease that effects connective tissue in the body. Paganini had long slender fingers and extremely flexible joints, due mostly to his condition and this allowed him to explore the violin in ways that previously had not been explored. Many a virtuoso have anchored their career on their ability to champion the 24 Caprices and some see his music as the pinnacle of all violin repertoire. You can hear Itzhak Perlman play all 24 below.

The 24 Caprices are generally not studied until the student has a firm grasp of the instrument and are often the last Etudes or Caprices that a violinist learns. Sally O'Reilly once said she does not teach these to any student who does not have a high level instrument and bow otherwise it is virtually impossible to play them successfully. 

It is one thing to hear them, it is another to watch them performed - and who better than Heifetz to do the honors?

Paganini also wrote several show pieces that use a well known melody as the theme. Often, the theme is taken from popular operas at the time but occasionally a more popular tune is used instead - like God Save the King

and don't forget Nel cor piu non mi sent - this is definitely one of my favorites.

Paganini had many admirers and probably several admirers who followed him around to see him performances but none so famous as Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. Rumor has it that Ernst was completely obsessed with Paganini and followed him around, often booking a hotel room right next door or above him to hear him practice and sometimes copy his work. Ernst, also a virtuoso violinist, is considered Paganini's successor, and was said to sometimes book engagements in cities slightly before Paganini in order to perform his plagiarized music before Paganini could. His rather crazy obsessive personality reeked havoc on Paganini driving him to extreme fits of paranoia and secretiveness (perhaps rightly so - how else could you deal with behavior like this?). Nevertheless, Ernst cranked out some show stoppers of his own. Check out Der Erlkönig based on the famous song for voice and piano by Schubert.

or The Last Rose of Summer

Pablo de Sarasate was a Spanish violin virtuoso and composer in the Romantic era. His style really used Spanish dances and songs as a focal point for his virtuosic compositions. Carmen Fantasy, based on the opera by Georges Bizet is one of the most difficult and also most famous of his compositions. It really captures the Spanish flavor and energy of the opera - all on one instrument (with accompaniment of course). The melodies are so well loved and the Spanish flair is remarkably charming on the violin.

Another really great one is Zigeunerweisen (or Gypsy Airs) - although this is not so Spanish. It is Sarasate's attempt at using or copying the popular gypsy music at the time. Although perhaps not very authentic it is still really awesome and remains very popular amongst violinists.

Malagueña is another that I love dearly. You can almost feel the Spanish sunshine oozing out of it.

Henri Vieuxtemps was a Belgian violinist and one of the first proponents of the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. He was an active teacher, and these days is remembered mostly for his fiendishly difficult concertos. However, there are a few gems in the show piece genre - like Souvenir D'Amerique (can you guess what the song he uses as the theme is?)

Henryk Weiniawski was a contemporary of Vieuxtemps. He was Polish by birth but lived and worked in both Belgium and Russia. He also wrote a number of high level caprices, that have been arranged to include a relatively simple accompaniment line for either piano OR they can be played as violin duets - one violinist works their butt off while the other plays a simplified version of the piano part (hint: basic chordal notes or a bass line). Check out adorable and insanely talented Soo-Been Lee playing this as a solo caprice.

and here it is as a duet

Probably my favorite of Wieniawski's is Légende. It is just so beautiful! 

Fritz Kreisler was an Austrian born violinist who lived from the late 1800s until the mid 20th century. He was famous for his charm, his abundant use of vibrato - which, until Kreisler was used quite sparingly and only for expressive purposes. Kreisler actually did not win several auditions because the jury panel was repulsed by his relentless use of vibrato. My how the times have changed! I don't think I have ever had a lesson in which I was instructed to vibrate less than ALL OF THE TIME! Thanks for that Kreisler.

Kreisler also lived at the dawn of the recording industry. We can see early film of his performances and listen to some rather low quality recordings of his music. Still for sale are albums of Kreisler encores, both as sheet music and audio recordings of character pieces and violin pieces based on well known themes, older music or completely new and original compositions.

and here is a recording of Kreisler playing Kreisler. You can almost hear him smiling while he plays.

Born at the very beginning of the 20th century, Heifetz is considered one of the finest violinists to have ever lived. His technique was out of this world outstanding. People would go to his performances just to see if he would make a mistake. I just couldn't live with that kind of pressure but some people really excel in situations (or entire careers) like this. Even Kreisler admired his performances. Just watching him play is really fascinating- everything looks easy! He barely moves! Even Alexander Technique specialists cherish him and see his posture as the ideal for violinists. Heifetz wrote many short pieces, often transcriptions for the violin, and these collections are still for sale. I have yet to meet a serious teacher who does not own at least one copy of each volume (there are 3). The pieces are fun, challenging and lovable. They are written with the intention of showing off the skill and charm of the performer.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Heifetz is that there are so many recordings and videos of his playing. Just watching him and listening to his playing can serve as an excellent teacher to the aspiring or even seasoned violinist.

and of course.....

And to tie this post together neatly with a bow, I leave you with Paganiniana by Nathan Milstein. A Theme and Variations based on Paganini's 24 Caprices. Milstein took several themes from Paganini's compositions and strung them together into an even harder piece - If that is even possible.