Vieuxtemps – Capriccio for solo viola

Henri Vieuxtemps

Vieuxtemps Capriccio

The Capriccio ‘Hommage a Paganini’ in C minor for solo viola is one of the few works composed by Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881) for this instrument. It is the last in a set of six pieces, the first five of which are for solo violin, and which were published posthumously under a variety of opus numbers. ‘Lento, con molta espressione’, the marking at the top of the Capriccio, sets the mood perfectly. The opening passage provides the material for the whole work, building up to the climax before reaching the final soft, plucked chords.

[audio:|titles=Vieuxtemps Capriccio for solo viola. Diana Mathews Recorded 16th September 2010. Engineer – Jonathan Haskell.]

Vieuxtemps and Paganini were not only two of the greatest violinists the world has ever seen, they were also both virtuoso viola players. Vieuxtemps studied with the virtuoso violinist, viola player and composer Alessandro Rolla and it is probable that it was he who inspired Vieuxtemps’ interest in the technical and expressive possibilities of the viola. Following a paralytic stroke in 1873, Vieuxtemps’ right arm was disabled and although he appeared to be gradually recovering, a further stroke in 1879 ended his career as a violinist. After his first stroke, he became able to play chamber music again, at least in private, and it was here that he often took the viola part. Most of his compositions were for violin, including the seven violin concertos, and it was only towards the end of his life that he extended towards other instruments, among other works composing two cello concertos, a viola sonata and three string quartets. Unlike Paganini, Vieuxtemps never chose virtuosity for itself. Ysaye, his most famous pupil, quotes him as saying ‘not runs for the sake of runs – sing,sing!’ Vieuxtemps was enthusiastic not only about performing his own works, but also about performing works by earlier composers. He brought the Beethoven concerto into his repertoire, as well as programming works by Mozart, Couperin, Bach and Haydn among others. In his compositions Vieuxtemps combined the virtuosity of Paganini with the classicism of Kreutzer, and this can clearly be seen in the Capriccio as well as in his concertos.


Paganini (1782-1840) played on a large Stradivari viola. It was between 1832 and 1834 that he became particularly interested in the viola as a solo instrument and it was at his request that Berlioz started work on ‘Harold in Italy’. Paganini felt that this was not showy enough for him and so never performed it, consequently being obliged to compose a work for himself. This led to his Sonata per la Grand Viola and orchestra, composed in 1834. While he wrote most of his  compositions to play himself, relatively few were for viola. The Sonata has a Recitativo and a set of variations, the perfect opportunity for him to display his exceptional technique. It explores the full tonal range of the viola and makes use of an identical virtuoso technique to that which he used on the violin. He was fascinated by the exploration of new ways to produce sounds and tone colours, often using scordatura, double harmonics, chromatic scales, high positions, octave passages and left hand pizzicato.  He performed the Sonata in London in 1834 but while his playing was well received, there were reservations voiced about the use of the viola as a solo instrument.