Giuseppe Tartini ‘Devil’s Trill Violin Sonata’: A Dare Devil of a Composer!

Good day readers, I hope you are all well and are enjoying the weekend! We’ve come to day T in the August Alphabet Challenge, and I think it’s high time we go back in time considerably and place ourselves in the 18th Century. Today’s blog is on Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Violin Sonata, which is a fantastically complex work for solo violin and continuo, which I am sure you will find just as stimulating and thrilling as I do.

Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) was a Venetian violinist and composer. Born in Piran, Tartini was a part of an old aristocratic family. His parent’s had intended him to become a friar, which is why he received the musical training that he did from a young age. However, Tartini studied law at the University of Padua. Whilst he was in Assisi, he went to the monastery of St. Francis, where he took up the violin. Tartini took his violin playing very seriously, and supposedly he locked himself away to study the bow and the instrument so he could understand the capabilities of the instrument. Tartini worked as Maestro di Cappella at the Basilica di Sant’Antonio in Paruda, which allowed him to travel to different institutions and work with various composers and ensembles. Tartini is the first known owner of a violin made by Antonio Stradivari (c.1715). After perfecting his technique and knowledge, Tartini started his own violin school, which was successful around Europe. Tartini died in 1770, and there is a statue of him in his home town of Piran.

Nearly all of Tartini’s work is for violin (c.135 works!) and these include concertos and sonatas. By far his most famous in the modern-day is his Devil’s Trill Sonata, which is what this blog is based on. According to Tartini, Devil’s Trill Sonata was composed in 1713, however, it was not published until the very-late 1790’s – more than 30 years after Tartini’s death. Tartini claims that the reason behind this work was that he had a dream that the Devil appeared to him and asked to be Tartini’s servant. He explains the story in full:

“One 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 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 in order to keep, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed 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.”

This particular sonata seems to be popular due to a myriad of factors: the technical demand of the music, the programmatic background and its musical tenacity. The technical demand needed for particular parts of the sonata are difficult even in today’s violin playing, so at the time it seemed that Tartini was way ahead of his time musically. The work runs for about 15 minutes and is broken down into 4 movements:

I. Larghetto affettuoso 

II. Allegro moderato 

III. Andante 

IV. Allegro assai – Andante – Allegro assai 

The sonata is based around G minor and Bb major, with the major key brightening the melody and the minor darkening it. The difference of shading between the keys colours the music and keeps the pace going. There are no transition sections, but instead the new key is just stated with a reprise of a theme, and then taken from there. Tartini uses lots of intriguing techniques throughout all the movements of this sonata, so by breaking down the music we will be able to understand it in a much clearer way.

I. Larghetto affettuoso 

The first movement is in a slow 12/8, which is accented with Tartini’s use of dotted rhythms. There is a feeling of repressed sorrow within this movement, and Tartini has exploited the melodic expression to fit the slow, mournful nature of this movement. There is a sense of dreaminess too, and the slow tempo of this movement emphasises this. It opens with a phrase in G minor, which essentially is there to introduce the next key of Bb major, which, when it takes over, creates a ray of sunshine within the movement. The range written is around the middle for the violin – so very comfortable. There is a lot of step motion in the melody and there is an abundance of legato phrasing. This movement has become a staple within violin repertoire.

II. Allegro moderato 

The second movement is a type of moto perpetuo, which brings more energy and drama than the previous movement. It’s in duple metre and is very brisk, with fast leaps and a constant drive within the melody. This movement is much more idiomatic than the previous and the technical demand is much more forceful. With difficult string crossings and bowing patterns, this movement is much more ambitious. Tartini uses lots of different embellishments within the work to create colour and a variation on rhythm. His trills are especially prevalent within this movement. He uses short trills to make the music sharp and concise. The excitement within this movement is then broken down by the next movement, which brings a much slower tempo back.

III. Andante

The andante is incredibly brief and lyrical, which sets us up for the fiery Allegro that comes after. The andante acts as part of the fourth movement, and at times it has been suggested that there are actually only three movements of this sonata. This andante is cantabile in style and uses the mid-upper range of the violin. There is some ornamentation used again within this movement, such as grace notes and trills, which overall give the music colour and vibrancy.

IV. Allegro assai – Andante – Allegro assai 

The final movement opens with a staccato theme, which is a complete contrast to the previous andante. G minor is the established key and Tartini begins to write more virtuosic techniques for the soloist. He begins with double stops (two voices), and this is varied and Tartini even uses dissonance to create a certain mood for where the music goes next. By about by 39, the famous ‘Devil’s Trill’ section begins. The ‘trillo del Diavolo’ is a continuous trill over a moving voice. It moves around the keys of G minor, A minor and D minor, which creates some electrifying suspense and excitement within this section. The trill ends on the dominant seventh, which leads into the andante section. This andante section nearly identically shadows and reinforces the previous andante. The allegro that comes after this begins in D minor, however it quickly moves away and starts a development-like section which uses a wealth of different modulations. Again, due to the tempo and virutosic nature of this movement, the excitement and energy levels are very high! This is soon dissolved by the last andante section which is in G minor, and this is nearly identical to the second andante section. There are shortened versions of the trill and the accompanying voice that comes with it. The end of the work is very chromatic and ends in the minor.

This sonata is especially devilish to play, which is the whole point of the work! It is animated and provocative, which makes it a true classic within violin repertoire. Tartini’s use of trills is to depict a musical theme, which was a technique that had not been done extensively. I find this sonata jam-packed full of drama, suspense and vigour – surely the perfect concoction for an exciting solo work?! I hope you have enjoyed today’s instalment – I know I have! We are on the final stretch now of the challenge, so make sure you check my facebook/twitter/instagram accounts to see what the last few blogs are based on!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Soloist – Joshua Bell

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