Is the Violin a Devil’s Instrument?

On that night, in the year 1713, I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the “Devil’s Trill”, but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me.

Giuseppe Tartini

Later on, Tartini added, that in his dream the Devil tried to bargain for his soul and challenged him to a duel where both of them played their best music. After he woke up, the composer tried to reproduce what he heard, but the piece doesn’t even come close to the devilish music from his dream.

And so the famous sonata Devil’s Trill (Il trillo del diavolo) was born.

The music in the first part seems to describe Tartini’s dream. Slow pleasant melody (cantabile) sounds like a little lullaby. But if you wait, later on the music becomes more stormy and disturbing and finally the Devil appears in his dream. After a short conversation, Tartini acquires superhuman powers and the famous cadenza arrives. The cadenza in a classical form starts with V-7 chord and fermata, that’s when accompanied music stops. Then the soloist has all the time to show off his (or her) skills. At the end, the longer than usual trill lets the orchestra know that the solo exhibition is over, and it’s time to play together again. Well, in this Tartini’s composition, the entire cadenza is nothing but trill, an idea unheard of two hundred years ago. In the downloaded recording by Perelman, it starts at 11:00 and lasts for the next two minutes or so.

Here is a technically more complicated version of the famed cadenza by Kreisler. At 11:10 we can hear it played by Sitkovetsky.

In an earlier edition of the printing, the moment of the cadenza was marked at the score “The Devil at the foot of the bed.” It’s not sure if Tartini wrote the note himself; apparently his dream was revealed to his friend only a few years before his death and very reluctantly. In the early 18th century, admitting to a pact with the Devil could send you to the gallows.

Tartini claimed he composed the piece in 1713. It was so technically complex that it wasn’t difficult to believe that his contemporaries thought he must be possessed to compose and play such deranged music. One of the stories was that Tartini had six digits on his left hand (polydactyly) thus was able to play all the technical pyrotechnics with little difficulties.

In this piece, I see Tartini as being “in the zone”. There are moments in the life of any professional, when seemingly everything “flows”. One can do nothing wrong. A basketball player shoots hoops from an improbable distance and impossible angle. The surgeon does the most difficult operation without a single unnecessary movement and in amazing time. The tenor takes high C in Fille du Regiment nine times and drives the audience into a frenzy.

Two-hundred years ago, it could only be explained by supernatural forces, and the most obvious was the concept of selling the soul to the Devil. Like Copernicus, Tartini waited to reveal this heresy as close to his deathbed as possible.

Tartini’s instrument, which he loaned to the Devil in his dream, was one of the first works by Stradivari and eventually ended in the hands of Polish virtuoso Karol Lipinski.

But later on, some others, like Paganini, not only didn’t mind the aura of mysticism, they even fueled it when possible.

More about Paganini and Lipinski later on.

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