Satan in Music: Tartini and the Devil’s Trill

Two hundred fifty years ago, on February 26, 1770, “following a gangrene that developed in one foot,” the one who at the end of his career was called the “first violin-player in Europe”  and “master of the nations” died in Padua (P. Petrobelli, Giuseppe Tartini Le fonti biografiche, Universal Edition 1968, p. 13-14): Italian violinist, composer, and theorist Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770).

As a demonstration of how much more highly he is considered abroad than in his own country, we find also his name among those of twenty-six composers inscribed across the proscenium and along the side walls in the frieze of Paine Concert Hall on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Among the over 420 works he has left us — many, still unpublished, lie in the Archive of the Musical Chapel of the Basilica of S. Anthony in Padua, where he was primo violino e capo di concerto (first violin and concertmaster) — the Devil’s Trill stands out, a violin sonata in G minor, published in Paris only after the composer’s death in 1798.

What does Satan have to do with Tartini? The young Istrian musician is in the Franciscan convent of Assisi — welcomed by the father guardian, G. Torre, his relative also from Piran — where he dedicates himself to the practice of the  violin and is patiently educated in counterpoint by the Bohemian friar B.M. Černohorský, organist at the convent. The English musicologist C. Burney tells us about the personal experience Tartini lived in that convent and told the astronomer J. Lalande:

He dreamed one night, in 1713, that he had made a compact with the Devil, who promised him to be at his service on all occasions; and during this vision everything succeeded according to his mind. In short, he imagined he gave the Devil his violin, in order to discover what kind of musician he was; when to his great astonishment, he heard him play a solo so singularly beautiful and executed with such superior taste and precision, that it surpassed all he has ever heard or conceived in his life.

So great was his surprise and so exquisite his delight upon this occasion that it deprived him of the power of breathing. He awoke with the violence of his sensation and instantly seized his fiddle in hopes of expressing what he had just heard, but in vain; he, however, then composed a piece, which is perhaps the best of all his works (he called it the Devils Sonata), but it was so inferior to what his sleep had produced that he declared he should have broken his instrument and abandoned music forever, if he could have subsisted by any other means. (The present state in France and Italy, London, 1771, pp. 122–123)

This is only the most famous episode about the relationship between the Evil One and music. In fact, many musicians have let themselves be inspired by the devil and all his pomp, through the centuries to the “Satanic rock” of our day. A few examples? Landi’s “spiritual opera” Sant’Alessio (1632) on a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi, the future pope Clement IX, where a demon undermines the saint. There are also the Latin oratorios Dives malus and Lucifer by Carissimi (1605–74) and Sancti Michaelis Archangeli cum Lucifero pugna et victoria (1705) by A. Scarlatti.

Faust’s story — a literary character born in the 16th century, who sells his soul to Mephistopheles, the tempter, to gain knowledge — has been transposed several times musically or staged by Opera house. Thus, we have Wagner’s Seven Compositions on Faust by Goethe (1832); Berlioz’s “dramatic legend” The Damnation of Faust (1846); the operas Faust (1859), a masterpiece by Gounod, Mephistopheles (1868) by Boito, on his own libretto, and Doktor Faust (1925) by Busoni; the Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844–53), a bit cantata, a bit oratorio and a bit opera by Schumann; Liszt’s program symphony Faust Symphony (1854–57) and his Mephisto Waltz (1859–61).

Also the following pieces of music deal with “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). Boccherini’s Symphony in D minor, Op. 12, No. 4 (1771), nicknamed The House of the Devil (the last movement of which, using Gluck’s material, is “a chaconne representing Hell”); Paganini’s variations The Witches, Op. 8 (1813), for violin and orchestra; Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (1867), a symphonic poem, completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov; the Danse macabre (Dance of Death) in G minor, Op. 40 (1875), a symphonic poem by Saint-Saens; Dvořák’s opera The Devil and Kate (1899); Stravinsky’s The Solider’s Tale (L’histoire du soldat, 1918), a theatrical work “to be read, played, and danced” by three actors and one or several dancers, accompanied by a septet of instruments, in which the devil coaxes a soldier, who goes home on leave, and takes away his soul in the form of a violin in exchange for a book that achieves every desire.

It is interesting to note that in Tartini’s, Saint-Saens’s, and Stravinsky’s works, the devil identifies himself with a violin, an instrument that seems to represent the vices of individualism and pride well. Keep in mind that legendary renowned violinists such as Tartini and Paganini never discouraged the rumors regarding a pact with the devil at the basis of their amazing virtuosity.

Returning to the main topic, we will say that our adventurous musician is also famous for the discovery — which occurred in Ancona, in central Italy, in 1714, while playing double notes on the violin — of the difference tone, also called the Tartini tone, an acoustic phenomenon whereby the performance of two high sounds spontaneously generates a third sound lower, with a frequency equal to the difference of the other two. This discovery “had a determining influence, decisive on every form of activity, and also on the overall formation of the personality of this artist”: it will assume for the violinist “the meaning of a revelation” and will mark the beginning of the formulation of a theoretical system based on natural phenomena (cfr. P. Petrobelli, Tartini, le sue idee e il suo tempo, Libreria Musicale Italiana 1992, pp. 654–656). How not to glimpse in this phenomenon — used, for example, in the construction of pipe organs — a reflection of the Most Holy Trinity, a reference to the “one God — sole / eternal — He who, motionless, moves all / the heavens, with His love and love for Him” (Dante Alighieri, Paradiso 24.130–132)?

Perhaps, precisely Tartini’s studies in the field of theory and philosophy of music explained to him the apparent inconsistencies of life’s events and made him admire the action of the Divine Providence in the world. This emerges in many of his letters, especially  the following one, written on October 31, 1764 to his beloved pupil J.G. Naumann, who had just been hired in Dresden:

We owe you and I to thank Divine Providence for such a particular conduct! ordered to the establishment of your state and condition for your part, and for mine to reward me also in this world with a remuneration, the greatest of all, as the consolation of having done a “real good” is. As I give distinct thanks to God for this, so you constantly do all  the time of your life, always remembering to be distinctly grateful to such a distinct Providence, and to listen with cordial attention to your internal voices, who will certainly speak to you at heart late and on time. (in P. Petrobelli, ibidem, p. 656)

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