Giuseppe Tartini’s devilish inspiration behind his most popular work
”Brought To You By Satan” Episode Transcript
In the Spresser Forest outside of Wittenberg, Germany around the year 1516, a man and a few assistants came to a crossroads. It was nighttime, it was eerie, it was desolate. They wanted it that way.
The man muttered some ancient words from a book he was carrying—words that his assistants wouldn’t have understood. They certainly didn’t mistake his intentions though. No sooner had the ancient whisperings left his lips than the wind began to moan through the neighboring trees. The man and his assistants were no longer alone.
Lightning began to flash and thunder rumbled across the sky, and a looming figure appeared, shrouded in dark shadows. It was Mephistopheles, better known as Satan. The man had conjured up the devil, and he wanted to make a deal. He left the crossroads that night with a blood-signed contract. He also left without his soul.
For the next 24 years, this man received everything that a mortal could want. Love, money, fine foods, and even supernatural abilities and genius.
Unfortunately for the man, his 24 years of freedom lasted all too briefly. As he retired to his room on the evening of his last night on earth, he knew there was no chance of repentance. What was done was done. His friends and followers had gathered at the inn as well to try and protect him, but they knew his end was nigh. They waited in their rooms with hearts pounding, unable to sleep.
Shortly after midnight, a violent storm descended on the inn. The wind was blowing, lightning was flashing. And above the thunder, they heard their friend crying out in terror. The next morning, he was gone.
His name was Dr. Johann Georg Faust.
Ever since the legend of Johann Faust first appeared, people have been fascinated by deals with the devil, and for some reason, these Faustian Myths have often been attributed to musicians. Robert Johnson, Led Zeppelin, and Avenged Sevenfold are just a few modern examples. Even the Beatles couldn’t escape rumors.
We’re going to look into a couple of famous violinists whose careers have been steeped in Faustian controversy. Parts of these myths are ridiculous and easily refuted.
Other parts? Well, we’ll leave that for you to decide.
This is Backstage Podcast
Giuseppe Tartini was born in Pirano, Istria in the spring of 1692. Istria falls under Slovenian jurisdiction. It’s the largest peninsula in the Adriatic sea. 1692 was the same year as the horrific earthquake in Port Royale, Jamaica, and the same year as the Salem Witch Hunt. In case you were wondering.
His parents enrolled him in music lessons from clerics in Pirano and Capodistria, and they ultimately placed him in a Franciscan cloister. So far his life follows the script nicely—a musically-inclined boy following his parent’s wishes into the clergy. Things went off the rails pretty quickly though.
His first move was to renounce the cloister at the age of 16, although he did retain a “nominal” candidacy for the priesthood. We can imagine that he may have wanted to hold on to that title as a backup option in case his escape plan didn’t work out.
We are now in 1708 if you’re keeping track. He followed his exit from the monastery by further defying his parent’s wishes and enrolling in law school in 1709 at the University of Padua. So far, this is something that any young man alive today can certainly relate too.
The story’s more interesting when you try and get into the mind of a young man around the turn of the 18th century though. Not only was it much more unusual to go against family standards, he was leaving a life of stability and safety to go out into the loosely-defined world of a professional musician. He was enrolling in law school, but we’ll see in a minute that his studies didn’t progress very far. Who knows—maybe it was just an exploration for him before he found something more permanent.
The Devil’s Trill Sonata Composer and Marital Stress…Er, Bliss
I mentioned that his law school journey didn’t make it very far. Well, it looks like that may have been due to his newly-acquired ability to, well, not be celibate. He made it all of one year without getting married.
The problem is that he couldn’t marry just anyone. He had to marry the protege, and in other accounts the niece, of the powerful Cardinal Cornaro. That niece, of course, was off limits to a monastery drop-out like Tartini. Furthermore he may have lied about his “nominal” status as an aspiring priest to make his marriage legal. The marriage was kept secret—the cardinal found out anyway. Tartini’s wife’s name was Elisabetta, by the way.
Cardinal Cornaro was furious as you can imagine, but unlike modern uncle-in-laws (I realize that’s not really a legal family term), he actually had power to disrupt the marriage. And disrupt he did.
Remember that Tartini didn’t only “steal” the Cardinal’s favorite niece (or protege, depending on the account you read)—-he also hid his aspiring clergy status, thus providing the vengeful cardinal with two reasons to come after him.
The Cardinal ultimately prosecuted Tartini for abduction. Apparently it didn’t matter that Elisabetta wanted to be abducted (or married, depending on how you consider it), because Tartini had to leave town as fast as possible. Fortunately he found safety. Unfortunately, or ironically perhaps— considering he had abandoned a cloister as a teenager—he ended up with the Friars Minor Conventual in Assisi. That’s a monastery. He also ended up getting serious about the violin and playing it in the opera orchestra there, only 2-3 years after leaving the music profession for law.
You might find this hard to believe, but he was essentially exiled from his wife and home for several years because of an angry cardinal. He was finally pardoned in 1715 and allowed to return to his wife and to the city of Padua. In 1721 he took up a job as the principal violinist at the Basilica of Saint Antonio and lasted a full two years before another scandal.
From 1723-1726, Tartini took an extended sojourn in Prague. The reason? According to Capri’s account (as related in the New Grove Dictionary), he may have been running away from a paternity lawsuit by a Venetian woman. This is starting to sound like the story behind Giovanni Paisiello’s marriage that we talked about in episode one—it really is a different story though. Nothing came of the woman’s claims other than Tartini’s extended stay in Prague, but her son continued to claim Tartini’s paternity as late as 1767, three years before Tartini died.
Even aside from his “Devil’s Trill” sonata—which we’re getting to—Tartini had an excellent career. Once he was reunited with Elisabetta, the two of them moved to Venice, the home of famous (and eccentric) violinist Francesco Veracini. He was apparently so struck with Veracini’s playing that he spent a couple of years in solitary musical confinement, if you will, to improve—I think all of us musicians have had moments like that. Just when we think we’re getting pretty good, we hear someone else and realize we suck—well anyways, this little “Tartinian Epiphany” led to him actually becoming Europe’s foremost violinist.
Some sources say his solo career tapered off in 1740 because of a stroke, but New Grove mentioned an arm injury. Here’s the interesting part — Tartini was actually an avid fencer. You know, the sport “fencing.” When he was back in law school, which was before he was a serious violinist, he was actually so good at fencing that he thought maybe he would make a career of it. I didn’t even know there was such a thing in the early 1700s, but I suppose there was. Ginsburg mentioned his fencing phase much more eloquently:
“At one time it even seemed to him that fencing was his true vocation, but this was no more than the romantic impulse of a young man, and it passed with time. Tartini’s logical mind and sense of purpose, together with his growing involvement in music and the violin, soon took the upper hand and helped him to realize his true inclinations and become a professional musician.”
At any rate, we couldn’t help but wonder if his arm injury was somehow fencing-related. If so, I’m sure that was butt of many jokes at the local violinist’s pub.
He maintained a busy teaching schedule as well, and considering his place as one of the forefathers of violin pedagogy. He actually started a violin school in Padua in 1728. We were lucky enough to find this letter from him to an adult student named Signora Sirmen: It was eventually published, and it’s translated by Charles Burney.
“Your principal practice and study should, at present, be confined to the use and power of the bow, in order to make yourself entirely mistress in the execution and expression of whatever can be played or sung, within the compass and ability of your instrument.”
That was a gem. Let’s read a couple more. . .
“I now pass to the third essential part of a good performer on the violin, which is the making of a good shake…”
I’m assuming a “shake” is a vibrato. This letter was signed by,
“Your obedient and humble servant, Joseph Tartini”
I’m not sure about you, but my teachers were never quite obedient and humble enough to me.
He also discovered the Summation and Differential tones on violin, which are sometimes referred to as “Tartini Tones,” and he became a very prolific composer. Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule of 1756 even borrowed heavily from Tartini’s style, so i guess we could say that Tartini influenced Amadeus too.
As far as we can tell, Tartini mostly avoided sacred music despite his employment at cathedrals. We really only know of two important sacred works from him, although his catalog is still being discovered. He very well may have developed an aversion to religion because of the years he was forced to participate in the catholic church.
Tartini: History of the Devil’s Trill Sonata
Since we are talking about Tartini as a composer, we should probably mention how the devil factors into this story.
Tartini’s most famous piece of music by far is the Devil’s Trill Sonata, or more officially, his Sonata in G Minor. This is how Tartini’s encounter with Satan goes, according to an account by a scientist alive at the time, J.J. de Lalande. This is from his 1769 publication, Voyage d’un Français en Italie.
One night Tartini dreamed that Satan was his servant—this was the result of a Faustian deal of course. As in, Tartini had sold his soul to Satan in order to utilize him as a servant for a bit. In total music-nerd fashion, Tartini used part of this borrowed time to hand Satan his violin. He asked the devil to play something.
What happened next led to the very crux of Tartini’s compositional life. And not just the compositional life of his dreams, but his very real and physical compositional life.
The devil picked up the violin and started to play. To Tartini’s amazement, the music was the most beautiful, haunting, and virtuosic thing he had ever heard. He woke up in a frenzy. As he rushed to his parchment or whatever he wrote ideas down on, he frantically tried to recall the music that he had heard in his dream seconds earlier. Unfortunately, it was already gone.
He did sit down and write a sonata anyways, and by his own admission, it was by far the greatest thing he wrote. But the real kicker?
Sorry—before I give you the real kicker, you need a little bit more info. Lalande, the scientist, had visited with Tartini to transcribe this account not long before Tartini’s death. Tartini hadn’t told the story before because of his employment at St. Anthony’s and other religious institutions—he assumed he would be laughed at, scorned, or worse for being inspired by a dream about the devil.
I guess listing Satan as inspiration didn’t go over too well in 18th century Christendom. Not like it does today either.
So all that to say that Lalande got his account from the mouth of Tartini himself. And Lalande was a scientist. So this should be pretty reputable. Now you’re ready for the real kicker.
Lalande wrote down that Tartini composed the Devil’s Trill Sonata in 1713. When he was 21 years old.
That was even before he was a well-known violinist. That’s just barely after he did a stint in law school, got into fencing, and went into exile at a monastery because of his marriage.
If he did, in fact, create his life’s masterpiece so long before he reached any kind of musical maturity, I think many of us would be inclined to believe that something, from another dimension shall we say, influenced him.
One explanation could include the fact that the Biblical Lucifer, known as Satan, of course, is described in the context of musical instruments in the old testament. The instruments listed with Lucifer were pipes and tambourines and stuff, but given Tartini’s religious education, he could certainly have had an exciting dream to that end. Another explanation be that Tartini was haunted by his violinist role model, Veracini, who was at least slightly insane. Veracini probably haunted more than one of Tartini’s dreams. Here’s a quote from Charles Burney about Veracini:
“He [Veracini] had certainly a great share of whim and caprice, but he built his freaks on a good foundation, being an excellent contrapuntist.”
Burney also mentioned that Veracini was often referred to as “Capo Pazzo,” or “head lunatic.” Veracini also has an asteroid named after him. The 10875 Veracini in case you wanted to know.
Nightmare material, indeed.
Plenty of experts have challenged this account of course. Paul Brainard, for instance, says that Tartini couldn’t have written it before 1740, given the form and stylistic choices. Others give different dates, but the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
The initial idea very well may have come to Tartini in 1713, and he may have waited until later in his career to write it all out. We’ll never really know, and no one seems to know where on earth the original autograph is.
Of course, that could be because the original handwritten copy isn’t on earth. Maybe it’s somewhere else. Tartini didn’t sell his soul to us, after all.
Niccolo Paganini: Did the Italian Violin Virtuoso Have a Deal With the Devil?
There’s another famous violinist with legends involving the underworld, and you probably know about him already. He was Niccolo Paganini. We could talk about his 24 Caprices for Solo Violin Op. 1, La Campanella from Violin Concerto #2, and the other influential music he wrote, but we’d rather focus on other things right now. You can always look him up in a thematic catalogue.
He was born in 1782, so some of his formative years were spent during the French takeover of northern Italy. He even played the violin in the court of the Napoleon’s sister during the Napoleonic rule of Italy.
He started showing his reckless bent around the turn of the century, when he was 18 — honestly that’s a lot like Tartini — but that’s where the similarities end. Tartini’s recklessness led him to marriage and law school.
Paganini’s led him to a reputation as a womanizer and a gambler.
Once, in 1800, he even had to pawn his violin because of a gambling debt right before a concert. Fortunately a French merchant let him borrow a Guarneri violin and then wouldn’t take it back after he heard Paganini play. I guess addicted gamblers have to have a little bit of good luck sometimes.
At that time Paganini was only a local musical hero. Even national maybe. But he performed entirely within Italy until 1828, when he was 46 years old. After about 30 years of painstaking practice and refinement, he was ready to take his virtuosity outside the comforts of his homeland.
He played his first international concert in Vienna in 1828 and quickly took Europe by storm—his technique and rapid rise to fame left people breathless. In line with his rumored pact with the devil though, he had to give up performing only six years after the start of his international career because of debilitating health problems. Maybe the bad health that plagued him came as a result of his lifestyle, or maybe it was genetic. Or maybe there was always something more sinister at play. A deal of some kind, perhaps?
Either way, it had taken him only 6 years of concertizing throughout Europe to change the world of music forever.
By 1834 (he was 52) he had grown the myth of the romantic soloist. He made virtuoso status almost supernatural. People really thought he had agreed to a Faustian deal because of his incomprehensible abilities on the violin and because of his rapid ascent to international fame.
The Italian violin virtuoso also influenced a certain young pianist during his brief international tour. This pianist was so inspired by Pagani’s ability that he set out to try and equal that virtuosity on the piano. He also tried to recreate Paganini’s superstar status. His name was Franz Liszt.
Also fascinating is the fact that Paganini commissioned and heavily supported a conductor and composer 20 years his junior named Hector Berlioz. He commissioned the work Harold in Italy, although he never wanted to play the violin part because it was too easy. He also spotted Berlioz 20,000 francs at one point and wrote that Berlioz was the next Beethoven. Paganini accomplished a lot during his relatively brief career.
After his soloing ended, he tried to follow the other love of his life by opening a casino called Casino Paganini in Paris. It failed, he lost everything. From there he moved to Nice where he died at the age of 58. That’s only the beginning of the stories surrounding his death though.
If you were a particularly morbid person, you could probably look at the Italian violin virtuoso’s life as being one long journey towards death. Yes that’s what life is anyways, but his journey was a little bit more pronounced.
He had a gaunt and haunted look, which was accentuated by his paleness. He certainly doesn’t fit the typical description of someone who lived a rigorous and licentious lifestyle. Like Franz Liszt for instance.
Many people throughout history have tried to attribute his unbelievable finger dexterity to Marfan Syndrome, which along with all of its debilitating side effects, allows for excessively long fingers, limbs, and extra flexibility. Medical Doctor Joseph Lewis has written that he couldn’t have had Marfan Syndrome though. His hands were of normal size, and he wasn’t taller than the rest of his family.
What he probably did have was a mild case of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. As a result, he suffered from gastrointestinal problems throughout his whole life, a loss of eyesight in his later years, and he eventually died of internal hemorrhaging. The one good thing he got out of it was unusual–and possibly grotesque—flexibility in his hands. This flexibility, combined with his almost inhuman talent, probably explains the level of virtuosity he was able to reach.
He was certainly better-off than many other people with Ehlers-Danlos. They often had stretchable rubbery skin and became sideshows in traveling circus acts. Even with his problems, he could have had a worse life.
Paganini developed debilitating respiratory symptoms around the year 1820. He was 38. He went to one particularly foolish doctor who assumed, simply because of Paganini’s promiscuous lifestyle, that the violinist must have syphilis, and he prescribed a mercury remedy. Apparently that was how doctors combated the disease in the 19th century. Doctors also tried to suppress his cough with opium. You may not be surprised to hear that his health continued to fall apart.
Violinist Niccolo Paganini: A Bitter End for a Great Virtuoso
Over the next ten years, he became gradually worse because of the long-term mercury poisoning. He also began to show signs of tuberculosis, and as we mentioned early, he settled in Nice, France at the end of his life.
There came a point where the Bishop of Nice sent a priest to perform the last rites on Pagani. Paganini, who probably wasn’t comfortable with someone else deciding it was time for him to die, thought this move a bit premature. He sent the priest away. One week later, Paganini, the great violin virtuoso, was dead.
So here we are in the story — Paganini refused his last rites because he didn’t think he was dying. He ended up dead after all, before the priest could return. Naturally this didn’t look good for Paganini’s image, which included an alleged deal with the devil. The Catholic church was not pleased.
Paganini had refused his last rites and therefore his soul was supposedly not prepared. Nor had he been absolved from sins that he apparently needed the church’s absolution from.
As a result the Bishop wouldn’t allow his body to be taken to his hometown of Genoa for a Catholic burial. It took four years — after a petition to the Pope — for his body to be permitted passage. Even after his body was transported he remained unburied.
He wasn’t interred until 1876, 36 years after his death.
Weirder yet, his grandson allowed a viewing of the body to Czech violinist Frantisek Ondricek in 1893. Author Joseph Lewis wrote that Ondricek then carried a screw from Paganini’s coffin around in his case for good luck for the rest of his life. Here’s a passage from Lewis’s book, What Killed the Great and Not-So-Great Composers?, describing the treatment of Paganini’s corpse immediately after his death.
“Paganini’s embalmed body was left on the deathbed in Nice for two months and then transferred to the cellar of the house, remaining there for over a year. When the church refused permission for burial in his home city of Genoa, health authorities ordered the body removed. It was transported to an abandoned leper house on the coast near Villefranche, moved to a nearby cement vat in an olive oil factory and then to a private house at Cap Ferrat several miles from Nice.”
Pagani’s remains were exhumed yet again and buried for the final time in 1896 in Parma. His soul? Who knows. Maybe it walks amongst us today.
You may remember Berlioz, the composer that Paganini had gifted with 20,000 francs. Berlioz named one of his most famous works The Damnation of Faust. He wrote it in the years immediately following Paganini’s death, and it was premiered in 1846.
It would seem that Berlioz knew something that was hidden from everyone else.
Tartini Devil’s Trill Sonata Sources:
- Tartini, His Life and Times by Lev Ginsburg
- Tartini’s Letter to Signor Sirmen
- Voyage d’un Francois en Italie, by Le Francois de Lalande
Violinist Nicolo Paganini: Devil or Not?
- Thomas L. Phipson, Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of Celebrated Violinists, London, 1877. Seen on archive.org
- What Killed the Great and Not So Great Composers? By Joseph W. Lewis, Jr., M.D.