Paganini and Baker: Variations upon Variations




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The 24th caprice from Nicolo Paganini’s Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 1 has been the source material for many other works.  Variations by Brahms, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff usually stand out as the most famous examples, but it has also been used by Karol Szymanowski, Boris Blacher, Witold Lutoslawski, Gregor Piatigorsky, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.  To this formidable list of composers must be added David Baker, bebop trombonist and well known jazz pedagogue, who took this theme to create his Ethnic Variations on a Theme by Paganini


The 171 years from Paganini’s composition in 1805 to Baker’s completion of his Ethnic Variations in 1976, would give sufficient reason for divergences between the two treatments of the theme.  Most obviously, Baker chose to realize his variations as a work for violin and piano, rather than for solo violin.  But more importantly, the two works diverge in their methods of variation, thereby establishing a different purpose and intent for each work.


Paganini’s 24th caprice is a perfect example of technical variation, a form that focuses on technique as the force for variation, while leaving the harmonic structure established in the theme fairly intact.  Each of the eleven variations explores a new technique of the right or left hand, and the Paganini’s own virtuosity is evident in the level of difficulty maintained throughout the piece.  Baker’s Ethnic Variations, on the other hand, represent a tradition of character variations, where “individual numbers take on the character of different dance pieces, national styles or programmatic associations.”[1]  This is exemplified most obviously from the titles of the individual variations—Bebop, Swing, Funky Groove, Calypso, Heavy Rhythm and Blues, and Spiritual—but also through particular types of musical development that will be discussed in detail later. 


Technical and Character variations: these definitions help to explain the way in which each composer has treated this theme, and certainly draw a dividing line between the two pieces, separated by almost two centuries and many musical traditions.  But what is of interest in these two works is not how they are different, but how they connect.  An explanation of the processes and structures at work in each piece, and connections between the two, both musically and beyond, will establish that though much separate these two works, there is more connecting them than simply a shared theme.




Written during his stay at the Napoleonic court of Lucca in 1801 to 1809, and published in 1820, Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Violin Solo, Op. 1 were the first of the violin virtuoso’s published works.[2]  Their technicality makes them perfect material for his own virtuosic style, although as with many of his works, it is believed that he never performed them in public, instead restricting them to the private audiences he favoured.[3]   At this stage in his career, Paganini had not yet developed the virtuosic and demonic persona that would later define him, and was well known instead for his serious pursuit of violin study and technical ability, which are both exemplified in the extraordinary technical demands and musical sophistication of this particular composition.[4] 


The 24th caprice is a theme and eleven variations, the last of which also includes a finale.  The structure and harmonic motion of the theme is of particular importance, as the definition of technical variation requires that the following variations maintain those conventions put forth in the theme.  The theme is in binary form, with a four-measure A section which is repeated, followed by a eight measure B section.  The B section moves through the circle of fifths with a new chord every measure.  However, the motion appears to move slowly at first, as the actual leap of a fifth is first covered in two bars in mm. 5 and 6 (A to D) and then again in mm. 7 and 8 (from G to C), and then speeds up the progression to a single measure in m. 9 (F to B) and m. 10, (E to A).  The theme closes with a perfect authentic cadence. 


Ex.  1: Paganini, 24th caprice – Theme



Technical variations follow the formal and harmonic structure of the theme, but they do not necessarily pay attention to motivic aspects.  However, a few key musical features must be acknowledged here, primarily because they have been used by later composers to write their own variations. 


In particular is the rhythmic cell which is first seen in the opening measure of the theme.


Ex.  2:  Paganini, 24th caprice -Theme, m. 1




This rhythm, in addition to being the basis for the theme, is the identifying feature of the work itself, although it does not appear again in Paganini’s variations.  The second aspect is the leap of a fifth, as each pair of two measures moves a distance of a fifth (mm. 1-2 are A to E, mm. 5-6 are A to D).  This interval is inherent in the instrument, since the violin is tuned in fifths, which makes the leap an easy motion.  The third motive is the stepwise motion present throughout, particularly in the 16th notes of the B section of the theme (m. 5, A Bb A)


In fulfilment of the other requirement of technical variations, each of the eleven variations explores a different aspect of violin technique.  Variation 1 demonstrates the use of two bowing techniques: spicatto, which bounces the bow off the string while changing direction (first half of m. 1), as well as up bow staccato, which produces the same sound but while maintaining bow direction (slurred notes, second half of m.1).


Ex.  3: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 1 excerpt



Variation 2 focuses on the facility of the left hand, using the motion of the semi-tone and the rhythmic pacing, moving from triplets to 16th notes, as well as the addition of the grace note to demonstrate further dexterity.  The alternation of open strings and fingered notes also indicates very rapid string crossings, between the A and D strings in measure 1, and the E and A strings in measure 2.


Ex.  4: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 2 excerpt



Variations 3, 5, and 6 all use left-hand technique, calling upon dexterity and reach.  The third and fifth variations use octaves, either blocked or broken, and the sixth moves between 3rds, a difficult, close interval, and 10ths, which present a significant stretch for the left hand. 


Ex.  5: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 3 excerpt




Ex.  6: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 5 excerpt



Ex.  7: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 6 excerpt



Variation 8 uses similar techniques, but the player is now asked to contend with three note chords.  


Ex.  8: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 8 excerpt



Variations 4 and 10 both utilize the player’s ability to play in very high ranges. 


Ex.  9: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 4 excerpt




Ex.  10: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 10 excerpt



Variation 7 forces the player to move quickly around the instrument, while still referencing the stepwise motion established in the original theme.          


Ex.  11: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 7 excerpt



The most extended of techniques comes in Variation 9.  This variation combines pizzicato, the plucking of the strings, with arco, which uses the bow.  But the plucking is not done with the bow hand, as is most common.  It is done with the left hand, and in quick alternation with arco, requiring unusual coordination of all of the player’s physical forces.


Ex.  12: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 9 excerpt



The last variation, Variation 11, combines the chords of variations 3, 5, and 6 with the wide range established throughout the variations.  The 16th notes in the first and third measures are essentially broken quadruple stops, or blocked chords that are divided due to the impossibility of bowing all four notes at once.[6] 


Ex.  13: Paganini, 24th caprice - Variation 11 excerpt



The finale continues in this vein, but shifts the focus from broken chords to arpeggiated motions, slowly widening the range until it has reached its upper and lower limitations.


Ex.  14: Paganini, 24th caprice – Finale, beginning




Ex.  15: Paganini, 24th caprice - Finale, ending



The variations do not follow any kind of consistent arch or wedge formation – they neither increase and decrease in difficulty or intensity, nor do they consisitenly build to the end.  Because of the nature of technical variations, it is difficult to determine which of the variations is more or less intense, because each performer will approach the variations differently, depending on her strengths as a player.  However, this is not to suggest that there was no plan for the overall ordering of the variations for either the performer or the listener.  There are a few obvious points of respite, particularly the variations that move up into the high registers (Variation 4 and 10) but thin out the texture, acting as a sonic break from the otherwise busy composition.  Overall, the variations are placed next to each other in a way the capitalizes on their variety and creates a sense of contrast from one to the next, which seeks not only to demonstrate the player’s abilities, but also to maintain the audience’s interest.




David Baker received both his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Music Education from the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, IN.  After completing his MMe, he began a promising career as a bebop trombonist, but a car accident in 1963 forced him to give up the instrument, and he turned instead to the cello.  Although he returned to trombone later, his greatest influences in the jazz community have been as a teacher - especially as chair of the Jazz department at Indiana - composer - having been recognized with a Pulitzer prize nomination - and as a director of ensembles - including the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, a group dedicated to recognizing the importance of jazz in American culture.  In 1976, while a professor at his alma mater, he composed his Ethnic Variations on a Theme by Paganini [7]for violinist Ruggiero Ricci.


The label character variations implies several things.  Most obviously, it suggests that the individual variations portray a specific character or stylistic attribute.  Each one, save a few notable exceptions, is titled after a style of jazz composition and playing, or a precursor to that style:  Bebop, Swing, Funky Groove, Calypso, Heavy Rhythm and Blues, and Spiritual.  This also means that each variation need bear very little resemblance to the theme stylistically, and is certainly not constrained by the formal or harmonic connections that ruled Paganini’s technical variations.  A definition by Robert Nelson adds another aspect to the creation of such a set of variations.  “The separate members of the character variations frequently alter the expression, or ‘character’ of the theme place of a purely ornamental treatment we find here, for the first time an emphasis upon the development of motives from the theme [emphasis mine]”[8]  Thus, instead of formal structures, Baker’s variations create a common thread of motivic development to tie the work together.  


However, there are several levels of motivic development available to Baker.  There is the traditional form, where melodic materials actually in the theme are used and developed throughout the work, and all the variations, but particularly Variations VII, III, and IV, will use their stylistic characteristics to develop the motives in this manner.  But there is another level of potential development here, as Baker’s work might be more aptly titled Ethnic Variations on a Theme AND VARIATIONS by Paganini.  Baker not only borrows motives from the theme, but Variations I and VI are also variations upon variations, taking melodic and technical material from Paganini’s variations.  This connects the Ethnic Variations not only to each other, but also to the work that inspired them.


However, to establish any sort of motivic development, we must first look at the theme.  The Theme of Ethnic Variations is both the theme for this new work and a variation upon Paganini’s original theme. 


Ex.  16:  Baker, Ethnic Variations – Theme



It is identifiably related to the 24th caprice, although with some obvious divergences.  It begins with the simple statement of the theme, an octave lower than Paganini’s.  It maintains some aspects of the original form – the A section appears repeated, although it is re-written with variants rather than simply using a repeat sign.  Baker then references the B section (m. 5), by continuing the same melodic contour as the original.  The use of double stops is both a simple thickening of the texture, and a possible reference to Paganini’s variations that use similar technique.[9]  At the point where Paganini moves to a cadence (m. 8), Baker instead prolongs the moment with a long scalar passage and arpeggio.  This is strikingly similar to the finale of Paganini’s caprice and the use of this motion and movement functions as a summary of the source material, connecting the beginning to the end and encapsulating the entire 24th caprice within the theme of this new work.  The importance of the rhythmic and melodic motive noted earlier[10] becomes apparent here, as the variations, no matter how far they diverge stylistically from the original theme, consistently give reference to that identifying structure.


Perhaps the most evident referencing of the thematic motive comes in Variation VII, “Heavy Rhythm and Blues.”


Ex.  17: Baker, Ethnic Variations – Variation VII, excerpt



The bracketed measures show the repetition of this motive, often even with the same motion in the 16th notes (a leap of a third and then down by step) that was present in Paganini’s theme.


Characteristically, Rhythm and Blues, or R&B, is a fairly broad term.  It was originally used as an alternative to “race records,” and basically denoted any type of music created by African-Americans,[11] and has included everything from gospel to rock to funk.  However, it was also applied to a specific style of jazz prominent in the 1940’s and 50’s, stylistically marked by “increasing emphasis on an insistent beat…and on solo work emphasizing overt emotion and rhythmic excitement.”[12] The consistent line in the piano certainly emphasizes a consistent beat, and also another prominent element of some R&B styles – a persistent syncopated ostinato.[13]  The violin part, representing the solo, relies on wild scalar passages and a quick tempo to portray the “overt emotion.”  No matter how stylistically distant this particular variation is from anything Paganini might have even conceived of, it is insistent on the original rhythmic motive throughout, connecting it not only to the theme of this piece, but to Paganini’s work as well.


Several other variations reference the motive more subtly.  Variation III has the vague title of “Funky Groove,” and here, the theme makes itself known in rhythmic alteration, being re-fit to suit the constant syncopated triplet motion.  It is particularly visible in bar 5, where the line momentarily breaks from the established bass groove and the melodic contour exactly matches that of the opening figure of the theme, except for the change of B natural to B flat.


Ex.  18: Baker, Ethnic Variations - Variation III, m. 5



The rhythmic changes are reflective of the style, although both “funky” and “groove” have a multiplicity of meanings.  Here, the groove seems to be established by a repeated pattern of rhythm held in both the violin and piano parts, although the funk tradition of interlocking syncopated parts is absent. [14]   


Variation IV, “Calypso,” also directly references the theme, but with the most dramatic stylistic change.  The variation begins with a strummed passage for solo violin.


Ex.  19: Baker, Ethnic Variations, Variation IV, excerpt



The calypso style is present throughout, in the change from the predominantly minor key to major, and also in the rhythmic content of both parts. [15]  A traditional calypso stresses syncopated rhythms, and particularly this rhythmic pattern:


Ex.  20: Traditional Calypso Rhythm




The entrance of the piano in m. 9 brings both a clear statement of the thematic motive in the violin, and also the beginning of the calypso rhythm in the piano. 


Ex.  21: Baker, Ethnic Variations, Variation IV, m. 9



So far these variations have made reference to the motives established in the theme, and used their stylistic traits to differentiate themselves.  However, two variations stand out from the rest for taking their motivic material from elsewhere in Paganini’s caprice – Variation I and Variation VI.


Variation I is entitled “Bebop,” and references several elements of that style.  The tempo marking of “as fast as possible” is indicative of bebop, since the practice was best known for its virtuosic playing.  The syncopated nature of the piano part, as well as the extended harmonies, also reference this particular style.[17]  But the more significant aspect of this particular variation is that it is a variation upon Paganini’s second variation.[18] 


Ex.  22: Baker, Ethnic Variations - Variation 1 excerpt



The first measure is a direct quotation, and from there Baker moves away, restructuring the A section as a repeated eleven measure phrase rather than the simple four established by Paganini.  The tonality of the section is maintained at the start of the B section, but the semi-tone motive is reversed, changing Paganini’s AàG# to an AàBb (m. 12). 


There are only two variations that have no stylistic titles – Variation VI and Variation IX, the finale.  In the case of Variation VI, Baker takes this variation as an opportunity to pay tribute to Paganini, using both the theme and variations.


Ex.  23: Baker, Ethnic Variations - Variation VI, excerpt



Variation VI is a variation upon the technicality of Paganini’s ninth variation, demonstrating the use of left hand pizzicato.  The violin part also maintains a similar contour to Paganini’s variation, using repeated downward scales with mirroring leaps, but otherwise doesn’t quote the melodic material from the Paganini.  However, the piano part serves as a referent, as Baker puts Paganini’s complete original theme and fully utilizes the presence of the accompaniment to strengthen the connection.  So, although he breaks the flow of “character” variations, he maintains the link between the variations by using the same motivic material as the other “characteristic” variations, and pays direct homage to his source material. 


This variation also establishes another level of connection between these two compositions.  Although the focus of the analysis of Ethnic Variations has been the characteristic and motivic elements, it cannot be denied that there is a certain level of technical difficulty present in all of the variations, mirroring some of the intent of Paganini’s caprice.  This particular variation is an obvious example, containing both technical and melodic elements of Paganini’s variation.  Additionally, the running octaves in Baker’s Variation III are certainly exemplary of a level of technical mastery, just as those present in Paganini’s third variation served the same purpose.  Some of Baker’s variations even expand on the techniques outlined in the Paganini: Baker’s Variation I, matching Paganini’s second variation, poses additional challenges by expanding the challenges of semitone motion and string crossings by placing them into very complicated and difficult scales and intervals.  So, Baker may be writing character variations, but he allies himself as well with the original composition’s intention of demonstrating technique as well as musicality.


The Finale maintains a more subtle connection to the rest of the work, as it doesn’t particularly reference earlier variations within the work or of Paganini’s.  However, underlying the scalar violin lines is a deeper connection – the theme of the original caprice, placed in long notes in the bass.  Over the 9 measures that constitute the A section of Variation IX, Baker recreates the A section of the 24th caprice, spelling out the theme in dotted quarter notes.  As an additional reference to traditional practices and the original piece, the variation ends on a major triad.  However, in this instance the reference is particularly notable for a number of reasons.  Firstly, as most of the harmonies in this variation and throughout the work are extended, to hear a simply stated triad is very unusual.  In addition, the Paganini caprice ends on an A major triad, to contrast with the established key of A minor, and while the key area in Baker’s work is more sonically nebulous, but at least the key signature indicates an adherence to A minor.  However, the final triad is in Bb major, thereby making the formal motion of ending in major slightly ironic in this slight twisting of traditional practice.


Like Paganini, Baker has also not ascribed to any particular formal arch or wedge structure for the ordering of the variations.  However, a clearer pattern emerges in the contrasts between each variation.  The theme is fast paced, as is the first variation (Bebop).  Variation II (Swing) sets a slower, more lyrical tempo, which contrasts strongly with Variation III (Funky Groove).  Variation IV (Calypso) offers a distinct change of pace, with a happy, bouncy atmosphere.  Variation V (Bluesy) contrasts with a slower, more introspective atmosphere.  Variation VI presents technical intensity with left hand pizzicato, and Variation VII (Heavy Rhythm & Blues) mirrors it in musical intensity.  Then Variation VIII (Spiritual) offers a rest before moving into the Finale, which is middle paced, and closes the work with glancing looks towards Paganini’s motives throughout.  So, similar to the caprice, this work creates continuity through contrast, and showcases technicality through the variety of techniques and styles required of the players.




Although the connection between Nicolo Paganini and David Baker could be left at simply the fact that they are both composers who chose to use the same theme in very different ways, there still remains the question of why.  Why would this 20th century third-stream composer turn to a 19th century violinist to find inspiration for his work? 


In part, it may be the fact that so many had turned to this theme in the past.  It is apparent from the number of different composers who decided to take this theme to be their own that it has a rather impressive lineage, and through them the Paganini theme has become a benchmark for other composers to explore the form of theme and variations.  Baker has joined these ranks, and his “third-stream” style shows that this theme can be explored in new ways. 


However, the connection between these two composers can also extend deeper than simply their shared musical material.  Paganini was heralded the world over for his virtuosity, and Baker belongs to a jazz tradition that aspired to the same heights.  Bebop was a form that prized virtuosity over all other things, using it as a way to distinguish the true players from the “hacks.”  It is clear in Baker’s work, that he gave more credence to Paganini’s caprice than simply to borrow his theme and transform it for his own purposes.  It is no wonder that Baker, well known as a bebop musician of ability and talent, would feel a connection to another player who exemplified many of the things that his own form of music prized most, and Ethnic Variations demonstrates a connection that goes deeper than just a shared theme: a musical, technical, and personal bond between composers spanning almost two centuries. 




Baker, David.  Ethnic Variations on a Theme by Paganini.  Bloomington, IN: Frangipani Press, 1982.

Gridley, Mark C.  Jazz Styles.  London:  Prentice Hall, 1978. 

Holecek, Jaroslav, trans. Ted Whang.  Liner notes from Pavel Sporcl Plays Paganini.     Supraphon SU 3772-2, 2004.  Compact Disc. 

Nelson, Robert U. The Technique of Variation.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962. 

Paganini, Nicolo.  Capricci per Violino Solo, Op. 1.  Milan: 1820.  Sheet Music Archive - (Accessed 25 September 2005). 

Pavel Sporcl Plays Paganini.  Supraphon SU 3772-2, 2004.  Compact Disc. 

Perry, Jonathan. “Capricci per Violino Solo, Op. 1.” 19th Century Music Vol. 27, Issue 3 (Spring2004): 208-229. 

Stulsbrück, Birger.  Latin-American Percussion: Rhythms and Rhythm Instruments from Cuba   and Brazil.  Translated by Ethan Wisgard.  Copenhagen: Den Rytmiske Aftenskoles   Forlag, 1982.




[1] Elaine Sisman, “Variations” Grove Music Online,, (Accessed 15 November 2005).

[2] Jonathan Perry, “Capricci per Violino Solo, Op. 1,” 19th Century Music, Vol. 27, Issue 3 (2004): 208.

[3] Ibid, 209.

[4] He would later downplay his study, perhaps in order to better cultivate rumors that his abilities came from a dark power rather than human effort.

[5] The rhythmic difference between the first measure and the general motive is most likely a publisher’s addition: the pause between the first and second A is needed for articulation purposes, but in performance would be the same whether the rest was written in or not.   Also, this basic motive will become far more important in discussion of the Baker.

[6] It should be noted that for Paganini himself, it would have been possible to block most of those broken figurations into chords.  He adapted his violin by flattening the bridge so that these kinds of reaches would have been possible, as opposed to the modern instrument where it would not be.  It was this kind of sly defiance of the physicality of the instrument that led to a great deal of Paganini’s demonic reputation.

[7] The term “Ethnic” in the title can be problematic, as is shown in Jaroslav Holecek’s liner notes to Pavel Sporcl’s recording of the work – “David Baker, whose Ethnic Variations graft onto it [Paganini’s theme] modern pop music styles as well as the exotic sounding intonations of different African ethnic groups”.  Although it is true that Baker uses popular music styles, and calypso is the traditional music of Trinidad, the term “grafting” suggests that Baker has somehow stolen this music and manipulated it, and calling the styles “exotic” differentiates them further from any sort of respectable classical tradition.   In this context I don’t believe that “ethnic” implies any of these things.

[8] Robert U. Nelson, The Technique of Variation (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), 6.

[9] Variations 3, 5, and 6

[10] See Ex. 2

[11] Howard Rye, “Rhythm and Blues” Grove Music Online, (Accessed 15 November 2005).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mark C. Gridley, Jazz Styles (London: Prentice Hall, 1978), 313.

[14] David Brackett, “Funk” Grove Music Online, (Accessed 15 November 2005).

[15] Jan Farely, “Calypso” Grove Music Online, (Accessed 15 November 2005).

[16] Birger Stulsbrück, Latin-American Percussion: Rhythms and Rhythm Instruments from Cuba and Brazil  (Copenhagen: Den Rytmiske Aftenskoles Forlag, 1982), 172.

[17] Andre Hodier, “Bop” Grove Music Online, (Accessed 15 November 2005).

[18] see Ex. 4.