By Nicholas Cords
Bartolomeo Campagnoli’s 41 Caprices, Op. 22, are rarities in the realm of 19th-century studies in that they are actually written originally for the viola. As such, they offer a unique window into the mindset of the 19th-century player and provide much to grapple with for those of the 21st.
I think the best questions to ask when approaching these caprices all have to do with the music itself: What is the character? How does it change? What kind of sound is appropriate? What is the context? By trying to bring as much music making to the fore as possible, even (and especially) while approaching studies, you better identify and understand the techniques necessary to make the music come to life.
The first engraved edition by Breitkopf and Härtel (c. 1825) of these caprices is quite sparse in terms of fingerings, bowings, and dynamics. Later editions, such as the Primrose, supply plenty of new ideas, but I enjoy working from the blank slate of the 1825 version. Having to make your own decisions that follow the arc of the music is part of the learning process, after all.
The sixth caprice is a particularly gorgeous, stage-worthy study in bel canto singing for the viola. The music begins in a highly tragic landscape. Like a great singer, you should imagine a melancholy vibrato that is not fixed in speed or intensity, but one capable of developing along with bow speed and density within the hairpins of long notes, and giving expressive voice to meaningful intervals. Keep in mind that the norm for vibrato in the beginning of the 19th century was rather minimal, with much more focus on the quality of tone coming from the bow.
Speaking of the bow, I believe a player gets maximum learning out of practicing multiple options. For instance, it should be possible to produce a satisfying result starting the caprice on either a down or an up bow. Your bow should become your breath in this music, and it’s far more engaging to imagine the bow exhaling and inhaling rather than down and up. By the way, I would observe the long slur in bars 5 and 6—it gives a palpable sense of struggle, and also a wonderful challenge for bow control.
Your bow should become your breath in this music.
The phrase that starts in bar 9 offers a respite from the tragedy—a sweet youthful remembrance—and should be presented with a newly reinforced sound and a brighter and more focused vibrato. This phrase again has a number of challenges for the bow. The bowed staccato in bar 9 should be treated less like a virtuosic effect, and more of an articulated legato. No need for the bow to leave the string here, and allow plenty of bow for the last few notes approaching the downbeat accent at bar 10. Musicians should always challenge themselves to contextualize markings, and the accent found on that downbeat should be treated as an expressive emphasis rather than a vertical attack.
Bowing distribution is again something to be careful of in beats 3 and 4 of bar 10; be sure to save some at the beginning of the slur to allow plenty of bow toward the end. The forte found in the middle of bar 11 on the cadential trill might not only assume that the whole phrase could be slightly reinforced, but might also suggest an amplification of the phrase through the 32nd notes. Please take care to focus on sound quality in the trill! It is all too easy to let trills be exclusively about the left hand, but I like to focus on creating maximum warmth and resonance with the bow. I also enjoy starting with a slower trill and increasing in speed to give a more improvisatory flair. After all, you are basking in the momentary respite of B-flat major!
There are more excellent challenges for the bow in the next phrase at bar 13. Keep the vocal sound of the F and the C intact in bars 13 and 15 against the lower voice, and definitely keep the bar-long slur in bar 16. This is initially tough, but the bow truly has so many nooks and crannies and you learn more about them when you challenge yourself. And never play fast notes like an étude! These 32nd notes should sound beautiful, melismatic, and a piacere (likewise true for bar 21).
The closing material brings us back to the opening world, perhaps a dying breath in this rather short-lived aria. The thirds and the sixths present some difficulty, but using the receding character of the music can certainly help inform your left-hand technique. Try to let the left hand be as relaxed and unambitious as possible—the music is dying away and the last thing you want is to be wrestling with the fingerboard.
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Strings magazine.