Paul Osterfield-24 Caprices

Posted on July 8th, 2011 by

In the summer of 2011, began  a project with the Tennessee-based composer, Paul Osterfield. Hewrote a series of 24 Caprices for me, and there was a wonderful to and fro of ideas-he finished the set, astonishingly, in a month, and I gave performances of the Caprices in the US and the UK, in the following months. Now I have begun to record the set. Here are some extracts from the sessions. (Posted 16th October 2012)

Paul Osterfield-24 Caprices Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin, Engineer-Jonathan Haskell (Astounding Sounds)


Caprice 1-

Caprice 2-

Caprice 3-

Caprice 4-

Caprice 5-

Caprice 6-

Caprice 7-

Caprice 9-

Caprice 10-

Caprice 11-

Caprice 12-

Caprice 13-

Caprice 14-

Caprice 15-

Caprice 16-

Caprice 17-

Caprice 18-

Caprice 19-

Caprice 20-

Caprice 21-

Caprice 23-

Caprice 24

There were live performances during the year-click here for a link to one of them. Live In London

Paul Osterfield


I kept an online diary of my initial communications and workshop recordings as Paul sent them to me, as I travelled in the US. 


Listen-informal recordings as the cycle builds:

Caprice 1 –

Caprice 2-

Caprice 3-

Caprice 5-

Caprice 6-

Caprice 9-

Caprice 12-

Caprice 16-

Caprice 17-

Caprice 21-

Caprice 23 


Here is the sketch for Caprice 1. This begins the cycle at the root of the instrument-a study entirely on the G string. Excitingly, and tantalisingly Paul does not give any expressive clues about this first one. Perhaps he knows that beginning thus, evoking the great ‘G String openings’ is enough to set a violinist on fire. The typologies that come to mind are: Smetana ‘Piano Trio’, Ravel ‘Tzigane’ (of course), Glasounov ‘Violin Concerto’, Beethoven ‘Concerto’ (last movement), Jolivet ‘Incantation-pour que l’image devienne symbole’ etc. Paganini famously built whole concertante works solely on the ‘one string trick’ initiated countless jokes about his competition with London’s hangman, Jack Ketch. However, he used the device sparingly in his more considered works, the Capricci Op 1. Pure lyrical G string writing (not in octaves), only appears once, in the ‘hunting horn’ opening of number 18, although the B-section of of number 19 is on the G string. Karl Guhr (who had ample opportunity to study Paganini’s playing in Kassel) pointed out that he played his G-string works ‘scordatura’ tuned up to B flat, for greater brilliance.

Paul Osterfield Caprice 1 Sketch

Niccolo Paganini’s debut in London, 9th June 18311. High on the G string, to the consternation of watching string players-Lindaly, Mori and Domenico Dragonetti….

The second caprice sketch. Paul has used ‘Hauptstimme’ indications in this, very effectively, the first time that I have seen this technique used in solo works. However the most exciting challenge of this caprice is the two part writing. This might sound a little odd, but playing in two parts presents more issues of technical clarity than three or four part polyphonic writing. At the end of the 18th century, unaccompanied two part writing for solo violin enjoyed considerable popularity, leading to works such as Giovanni Battista Viotti’s ‘Sonata in two parts both played on one violin’ (ca. 1799) and later, Paganini’s ‘Duo Merveille’ which was most likely inspired by works such as Antonio Bruni’s set of ‘Sei Duetti’ for one violin. Joseph Joachim included some spectacular duos for one violin in his ‘Violinschule’, but in the 20th century, the technique fell in to comparative neglect. In addition the piece uses an internal gambit found in Tartini and Biber works, that of ‘variatio’ a single variation of a phrase folded into a movement. All this might imply that this was a a movement couched in a neo-classical language, but the language is chromatic, although reminds me of Bartok’s remark that he wanted to show Schoenberg that one could use all twelve tones and still remain tonal!

Here is the first working copy of the 2nd Caprice. This is the result of my first technical pass at the work, and online workshop (14-7-2011) with Paul. A word of explanation. Stage one fingerings in Blue. Voice leading indicated with blue commas or continuation lines. Fifth covering in red. Note extreme cross fingering in bars 22 and 30-necessary to preserve the held note unbroken.Arrows up and down indicate chromatic inflections on  sharps and flats. The composer was eager to keep the initial moving melody on the G string-hence the revised string indication at bars 7 and 8. Click on the image to enlarge…

Caprice 3 continues the baroque technical allusions-using ‘bariolage’ (string crossing to an open string) throughout. Most famously, this technique is used for two large sequences in the first movement of Bach’s A major partita. Osterfield’s extremely sophisticated approach has fa more in common with the first movement of Ysaye’s 2nd Sonata (Dedicated to Jacques Thibaud), or Nielsen’s ‘Prelude and Presto’ which had a profound, and unacknowledged influence on Bartok’s ‘Solo Sonata’ . Interestingly this is the first in the sequence of Caprices that includes a completed dynamic system, most particularly, the echo effect which Bach also used in his ‘bariolage’ sequences. However, Osterfield plays a tantalising  compositional card by reversing the bowing when on the echo, implying the presence of palindromic thinking. The coda of his caprice rochets off to the stratosphere, higher, quieter, faster…

Caprice 4 engages with an element of violin technique beloved of composers from Bazzini (La ronde des Lutins) through to Bartok-finger replacement., and playing the same pitch at any possible position on the violin. Think of the possibilities. Take the note F natural-the first fingered pitch on the E string. This can be played with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers, on the E string, A string, D  string, and G string, and both up bow and down bow. That’s 32 BASIC colouristic possibilities before one even begins to approach issues of shaping and shading, with either hand. In addition, there is the possibility of the fingered 5th harmonic second position on the G string-same note, and different colour. Paul explores the possibility of how these notes can pun their way into octave transpositions. In the language of this caprice, an octave leap on adjacent strings, is mirrored by  unison move, string to  string, which is adjacent. These are ‘clean’ movese but the composer opens the door to the ululating shifts between unison notes by indicating ‘portamenti’ on octaves. And he is only just getting going. He then wraps quarter tones around his fundamental pitch-offering a disforia between the finger replacements (which destabilize intonation and colour creatively) and actual shift in pitch. So this caprice draw an elegant arch from the world of Paganini to the ‘spectralists’-like Blake:


To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour. (Auguries of Innocence)

The central section of this caprice extends the questioning of a single picture into the liminal space between vibrato and trills. At this stage the composer is in two minds as to whether he has notated a 1/4 tone trill or vibrato. Two hundred and fifty years ago Giuseppe Tartini explored the same space,:

‘Finally, there is a species of trill which can be performed to best advantage by players of the violin: the note above…is joined to the note below in such a way that the two figures of the player never entirely leave the string. Consequently , one does not perform this trill by raising the trilling finger, but by moving all the hand by a pulsation, and, together with the hand, moving the trilling finger in a species of swiftly undulating movements with the force of the pulsation. This sort of trill is legato and not articulated. It makes it best effect in Affetuoso pieces, its motion is slow and it works best in semitone trills.'(Tartini-letter to Madama Lombardini/Sirmen)

Caprice No. FiveThis caprice is a ricochet study. This is a man knows his Paganini. The 5th Paganini caprice is the first ricochet etude of the Op 1 set (the opening arpeggiated etude is not strictly speaking ricochet). However, Osterfield’s Caprice plays with silences and stillness. Indeed the beginning’s use of rhetorical silence puts me in mind of Sibelius 2. Which, I know, is a stretch. Structurally, the piece is a like an ivory puzzle. At first sight, one sees the expected ABA structure which dominates Paganini’s Caprices _particulary the second group of 12. However Osterfield plays a sneaky game. It’s actually a set of variations-the only way I can descibe is ‘A Ai Ah Ha hAA Aa (a!)’ This sets very particular aesthetic-ethical technical challenges for a player, who must find a set of technical tropes which match the integral nature of the writing. I will scan in my solution later.

Caprice No. Sixteen While I was practising this in the music room in St Paul, my father in law, Garrison Keillor, drifted into the room-‘what is that? – such aethereal music?’-He’s right, this is the music of the spheres. Interestingly, it has the most English resonance, as about a minute in, there is a wisp of Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ . I play this dreaming of Pythagorean monochords, string theory, and remembering that we are about to pass through the Perseid meteor shower (12th-13th August). As Ungaretti put it: ‘Una per una, Svelano le stelle’.

Paul Osterfield-Caprice 17 (A tale of chopsticks and doubt) 7th August 2011

-Paul’s fantastic set of caprices grows like Topsy…last night, I checked in after a party here in Minnesota, to see that the latest in the set had arrived. It was marked sempre col legno (preferably with a wooden chopstick). I was immediately doubtful-perhaps it is the University of St Thomas, down the street from here-and went to bed determined to prove that a bow, col legno, would be infinitely better. I lay in bed and thought more about the tapping objects that I have used on the violin. George Crumb asks for ‘glass rods’ in his Black Angels . I found that laboratory size thermometers worked better. In Sweden, the young composer, Ansgar Beste, has me play the whole of his Dialogue Fragilewith a pencil. However, neither of those composers had asked both battuto and trattato (hit and ‘drawn’). When I was a student, I had become very frustrated with the composer Penderecki, who was visiting, who seemed to be demanding impossible degrees of volume from trattato ( and I did not wish to completely remove all of the French Polish from my nice bow (which would much later perish, ironically, in a Tartini induced accident in St Bartholomew-the-Great, but that’s another story). I went to my father’s workshop, took a ‘shitty bow’ (Ralph Holmes loved his ‘shitty bow’), and filed grooves all alon the stick. When I played trattato with it, it was fortissimo, and as an added benefit, clouds of sawdust rose around me….the composer was not amused. But back to Osterfield. I was convinced that the chopstick that he had demanded would be too light, meaning that I would not be able to get the effective accented ricochet that he demands in the first bar. I woke at 630 am and sneaked downstairs to the kitchen. The only person up was Garrison, who was preparing for a show, so was singing quietly in his study down the hall. In order to not wake the rest of the house before 7, I had determined to begin with the undoubtedly ineffective chopstick, and then move onto the now, when I had used the stick as a practice mute to learn the notes.  In the flatware draw ( coffee came first, of course) I found one chopstick, and the saicales fell from my eyes-we are in America,so take-out chopsticks are big. This one worked perfectly. Wonderful ricochet, great control over accents, and ghostly tremolo. I stand corrected, which is not suprising or unusual……Verdammt! 

20th Caprice-19th August Portland, Maine

An’Etude pour le glissando. This has a vexed, but creiative history in the past 80 years. In the 19th Century, les portes de voix were the most important weapon in the musician’s armoury, the signal of their shared ground with the singers that they emulated. One might go further-it is pretty clear that at the beginning of that era, singers such as Catalani and Malibran listened very carefully to emulate their ‘glissandi’. Indeed, Matilde Marchesi’s teaching material looks more like string music than vocal material. However, following the fracturing of the middle-european string tradition of the mid-century, certain techniques became more taboo. This offered clear space for composers to notate that which had previously been implicit. Without this, works such as Xenakis’s ‘Mikka S’ LISTEN , or the entire output of Gloria Coates, would have been unthinkable. Hence, there are few studies for sliding (audibly). And the biggest irony of all, is that the work that opens it all up, is not a string piece at all, but Henry Cowell’s epochal ‘The Banshee’.

21st Caprice-17th NYC

Paul Osterfield’s Caprices share the same utter motivic integrity that is to be found in Paganini’s Capricci. It is not often observed, but Paganini is determined not to allow a single note that does not belong, that cannot be justified as part of the largest whole.  Paul’s Caprices have reminded  me of this, forcibly. He is appollonian in his technical and structural honesty. Hats off….. This Caprice riffs on the Paganini No 6 (which was sometimes called ‘les tremolos’),  Bartok’s Melodia, yet sounds completely Osterfield!


Caprice 23-27th August London


Below-the interchange of E mails as this one emerged:

Wed, 24 Aug 2011 18:16:Hi, Peter.  I’m working on #23, and so far it’s just open strings.  I’m somewhat happy with it, but I’m considering tweaking it by incorporating scordatura.  My question is: to retune two strings by a half-step in between movements, how long should it take?  If it takes several minutes, then it seems to me that it would disrupt the flow too much.  But if it would take just about half a minute, it could be worth it.  Anyway, I’m not sure if this is the direction I want to go with the caprice, but I want to, at least, explore the option.
On Thu, Aug 25, 2011 at 7:37 AM:Dear Paul-I am a total Scordatura fanatic. Am currently preparing to perform the Biber sonata (15 tuning changes), and the Matthews 15 fugues change tuning at no 14. So all for it! Peter


Fri, 26 Aug 2011 13:23-Excellent!  I have the general draft of the piece, but I’m not quite sure on the tuning changes.  I’d like to tune the G string up a minor third to B-flat.  Would that work on a modern violin?  I’m researching the scordatura in the Biber, and I see that he tunes the string even higher, but the gut strings in his day have more flexibility in tuning than the modern metal strings.  I think I’ll run with this, in the meantime.Thanks! Paul


Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 11:32 AM-B flat is just great. Above B natural, then a certain restringing is necessary. Peter

Scordatura has come to mean ‘detuning’ but, of course, all that the Italian actual means is ‘tuning’, or more to the point, ‘stringing’. Until the middle of the 19th century, it was extremely common in virtuoso works, and is fundamental to a large number of works by Bach, Paganini, Biber, Mozart, and more recently, Saint-Saens, Mahler, Bartok, Jolivet, Scelsi, Henze, Kodaly, to name just a few. Pieces just using open strings scordatura are rarer. The classical of course, is Gloria Coates’ epochal Music on Open Strings, which created a furore at the Warsaw Autumn in the 1970’s.Guus Jansen’s Streepjes is closer to the naïve, folk effect that Paul achieves.