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The Music of Dreams: How Tartini Composed his Famous 'Devil's Trill' Sonata

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An inspiration for numerous classical composers, dreams have often been associated with music of great imagination and beauty. However, Tartini’sDevil's TrillSonata stands out as a piece whose fascinating story of dreamy origins is truly unequalled.

Giuseppe Tartini (1692 – 1770) was an Italian Baroque composer, violinist and music theorist. A contemporary ofVivaldi and Veracini, he composed more than 100 violin concertos as well as numerous violin sonatas. Tartini was said to possess an outstanding technique and his style of bowing proved highly influential for subsequent generations of violinists.  

Today, Tartini is mostly remembered for his Sonata in G MinorTrillo del Diavolo(Devil's Trill) for violin and basso continuo. Its exact date of composition remains uncertain, with estimates ranging from about 1713 to later than 1740. An extremely demanding work even by modern standards, the sonata is characterized by the appearance of recurring double-stops (simultaneous playing on two adjacent strings) next to several challenging runs and trills.

As legend has it, Tartini was inspired to compose the sonata after the Devil appeared in his dream, delivering a particularly intense and magnificent violin performance. Tartini allegedly recounted his vision to French astronomer and writer Jérôme Lalande, who included the story in his travel memoirVoyage d'un François en Italie, fait dans les années 1765 & 1766. The account is breathtaking:

“He [Tartini] 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.”

Mesmerized by the Devil’s brilliant and awe-inspiring playing, Tartini attempted to recreate what he had just witnessed:

“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 “Devil’s 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.

Given the sonata’s tremendous technical difficulties and its association with the devil (a theme that would recur during the following century in the case of celebrated violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini), several myths and rumours ensued over the years surrounding the composer and his notorious sonata with an aura of mystery and awe. In the nineteenth century it was even suggested that Tartini’s left hand had an extra finger that allowed him to play easier the trills in the sonata (a rare condition identified today as polydactylism).

Devilishly hard to perform, Tartini’sDevil's TrillSonata still poses a challenge for major violinists to this day. At the same time, its rare beauty and melodic quality have never ceased to captivate the listener, transferring her back to where it all began: the realm of dreams.  

Mimis Chrysomallis


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