Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) has long been viewed as an emblem of virtuosity, his music heard, if at all, through the variations and adaptations of other composers. This historical neglect and the Paganini mythos notwithstanding, the twenty-four Caprices, op. 1, published in 1820, establish his place as a serious composer whose innovations must be considered in any assessment of early Romanticism. In the Caprices, two voices seem to speak. The first is lyrical and draws on the vocal and operatic roots of PaganiniÕs musical upbringing. The second I have labeled the questive voice. Romanticism is an aesthetic of distance; the questive voice is a means of traversing the immensity that is the one essential feature of early Romanticism in its incarnations. This immensity manifests itself in the wide registral space opened and explored in the Caprices; in the motivically driven, asymmetrical construction of many passages found therein; and in the extensive harmonic reach of many of the Caprices. This article presents close readings of Caprices nos. 1, 2, 4, 9, and 10, drawing on Schenkerian methodologies and work by Ratner, Caplin, and Burnham to articulate the lyrical/questive dichotomy and interplay between technique and expression in these singular works by a singular composer.
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