Geachte heer Bach, In de afgelopen decennia heb ik, bij het bestuderen en bewerken van uw muziek, zoveel vragen verzameld dat ik, zou het mij vergund zijn om eens een middagje met u door te brengen, niet zou weten waar te beginnen.
The nineteenth century not only marks the birth of the saxophone, brainchild of the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax, but it also ushered in the unique phenomenon of the virtuoso-composer. Liszt, Chopin, Paganini and, later, Rachmaninov composed mainly for their own instrument, imposing upon themselves seemingly impossible technical demands. In pushing the limits of the piano and the violin they gave the development of these instruments a considerable impulse; they influenced one another as well as setting the standard for performing musicians to this very day.
The saxophone, partly under the influence of jazz, has developed into an instrument with enormous potential as a vehicle for virtuoso music, and in this respect it is not surprising that its introduction coincided with the emergence of the nineteenth-century virtuoso-composer. The possibilities have by no means been exhausted: in recent decades composers have, in collaboration with classical saxophonists, added a large body of innovative and demanding works to the saxophone repertory. Herein one encounters a wealth of new playing techniques that have emerged from the exploration of new sound possibilities. In these arrangements of the Paganini caprices I have accordingly employed some of these techniques in a traditional, tonal context.
Many arrangements already exist of Paganini’s celebrated Op. 1 (published in Milan in 1820), including those by Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninov. There are even versions for wind instruments, but to my surprise I discovered that none of these apply the simple technique of transposition to facilitate issues of range and key. These arrangements often come across as illogical because of the many octave jumps – in particular, raising ‘bass’ passages an octave – which tend to chop up the melody line. The Caprices are not governed by an overall tonal plan; at most the work seems to benefit from a variety of keys. In any case, the fact that the saxophone is itself a transposing instrument changes the key anyway.
My first step in preparing the arrangements was thus to transpose a number of the Caprices to a key as suited to the saxophone as the originals are to the violin. In the interest of maintaining Paganini’s voice leading, I shifted most of the Caprices a third or fourth higher so that the lowest note on the violin corresponded to the lowest note on the saxophone. After arranging and practicing the predominantly monophonic (single-voice) caprices (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 12, 15, 16 and 23) I explored the possibility of simultaneous singing and playing (Nos. 9, 17, 19, 20 and 21). At times the choice of transposition was influenced by other factors. In No. 14, for example, I opted for the key of B major (the original is E-flat major) because of the unique possibility of playing the chords as multiphonics. No. 6, in which I sing the melody line while playing the accompaniment (tremolo thirds), had to be adapted to the range of my singing voice. Those Caprices with a lighter character are played on the soprano saxophone rather than the alto sax. All of the various techniques converge in No. 24, now one of my favourites.
At first I had dismissed some of the remaining Caprices as unworkable. I wanted to avoid letting multiphonics and singing become a predictable, artificial or makeshift way to reproduce double stops: until now I had applied them specifically as a legitimate facet of the music. The most important criterion was, after all, that the end result be a logical composition. In numbers 4, 7 and 22, going a step further than simply arranging, I put on my composer’s hat. The remaining two Caprices (Nos. 8 and 18) were slightly vexing in that their fundamental concept is a play of thirds. Deciding to complete the set, I arranged these two as well, but even more freely than the rest.
So in approximately six years’ time a collection has emerged consisting of 24 true saxophone pieces, which still I practice daily to my heart’s content – and occasionally tinker with, of course.
The novelties Paganini introduced in the early 19th century are now standard elements in every serious violinist’s study repertoire. The music has inspired me to explore the limits of my own instrument. For the arranger in me, the trick has been to allow myself the same freedom as the master himself, at times taking a detour from what he literally wrote in order to do justice to the saxophone’s potential.
Countless people have offered useful advice along the long road to these recordings. Special thanks, however, go to two of my mentors: saxophonist Claude Delangle, who provided a few crucial tips, and violinist Rudolf Koelman, himself a gifted Paganini performer, who spent hours, even days, advising me on these arrangements from the perspective of a violinist.