About this work
Franz Xaver Süssmayr is remembered for exactly two things: completing Mozart's Requiem, and, less significantly, providing the melody upon which Paganini based his set of variations called Le streghe, or The Witches. This was actually a tremendously popular tune in the early years of the nineteenth century; it originated in Süssmayr's 1802 ballet Die Zauberschwestern im Beneventer Walde (The Magic Sisters in the Beneventan Woods). A revival of the ballet, given under the new title Le nozze di Benevento at La Scala in Milan caught Paganini's attention; soon he had composed a group of variations on the Süssmayr theme that accompanies the entrance of the "magic sisters," or witches. (The tune also pops up early in the Suzuki violin method, but certainly not in Paganini's version.)
The piece begins with an orchestral introduction, initially stately, but within a few bars becoming quite loud and stormy, hinting at an important phrase of the main melody. Soon the violin enters with a sweet, singing theme, across which are scattered a few playful bits of détachée passagework. This is merely a diversionary warm-up. At length the violin (and, immediately in turn, the orchestra) presents Süssmayr's theme, a rather sing-song affair that nevertheless provides good fodder for three central variations and an interlude marked Minore, all of which invites Paganini's most lavish virtuoso special effects. The first variation is thick with multiple stops. The second requires rapid string crossings, diabolical pizzicatos, and eerie harmonics. The Minore is a study in chromatic runs in octaves, and the third variation is a workout on the G string, plus more harmonics. As if this weren't enough, the finale repeats many of these effects and a few more.
Not surprisingly, this piece -- along with Paganini's satanically gaunt appearance and air of mystery on-stage -- fed rumors that Paganini owed his virtuosity to a pact with the devil. However beneficial to public relations this might be for today's rock stars, it caused Paganini sufficient trouble that he went to great lengths to present himself as the product of a god-fearing family.