[Pt. V- Proj.1] Listening Log- Guiseppe Tartini – Sonata in G minor, Bg,5 ‘Il Tillo Del Diavolo’

Guiseppe Tartini – Violin Sonata in G minor, Bg.5 ‘Il Tillo Del Diavolo’

‘One night I dreamt that I had made a bargain with the Devil for my soul. Everything went at my command—my novel servant anticipated every one of my wishes. Then the idea struck me to hand him my fiddle and to see what he could do with it. But how great was my astonishment when I heard him play with consummate skill a sonata of such exquisite beauty as surpassed the boldest flight of my imagination. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted; my breath was taken away; and I awoke. Seizing my violin I tried to retain the sounds that I had heard. But it was in vain. The piece I then composed, the Devil’s Sonata, although the best I ever wrote, how far below the one I heard in my dream!’ ( Tartini in Paris, 1769 in Lalande’s Voyage d’un François en Italie)

According to the composer Guiseppe Tartini (1692-1170) he had the ‘The Devil’s Trill’ dictated to him by the devil in a dream in 1713. The work wasn’t was published until 1798 -1799 and although there are doubts as to the veracity of the date it was written Tartini’s story definitively helped with the dissemination and success of the work. Goethe’s ‘Faust’ had started a trend of ‘deals with the devil’ type stories and Tartini had seized on this theme. He was one of the earliest Western Art Music composers to do so, and preceded Paganini by at least a decade or two with this particular myth making. There had in fact been a long tradition of viewing the violin as the ‘devil’s instrument’, played by Dionysus. Both Plato and Aristotle had considered it somewhat ‘immoral’ and ‘too exciting’. Not that Tartini’s composition would have needed any help. The piece is indeed astounding and the violin playing does definitely require a devilishly high level of skill. The trills themselves are some of the earliest of this type.

Fig. 1. Trillo del diavolo

The work is in three movements (or four if you use later editions) labelled as;

  1. Larghetto Affectuoso (or Andante or Largo)
  2. Tempo Giusto della Scuola Tartinist (or Allegro Energico)
  3. Allegro assai (or Andante or Grave)

The first movement is in a 12/8 time signature and consists of melodic material first played in G minor and then restated in B flat Major, repeated, then sequenced and then back again. On the way there are numerous false cadences and delayed resolutions and many instances of chromaticism and dissonance, like the use of a C7 chord and the tritone. The legato phrasing and the chromaticism together with lyricism of the melodies gives it a heartbreakingly beautiful sadness. It is absolutely stunning.

The second movement contrasts the first with its energetic use of quaver and demi-quaver figures and its technicality. There are a lot of leaps, string -crossings, demanding bowing techniques and arpeggiated figures. Like in the first movement harmonic shifts back and forth from G minor to B flat Major keys occur and the main melodic theme is repeated, sequenced and inverted in various way. Aside from its technical difficulty the notable element of this movement are the little rapid thrills which reoccur throughout.

The third movement, also named ‘Sogni dell Autore’ (dream of the author) is subdivided into two sections, an Andante and an Allegro pair repeated four times over but with variations (the last few bars is an Adagio). Harmonically things follow the same rules as set out in the previous two movements with constant flipping between G minor and B flat Major through various means of repetition and development and characterised by the same type of ornamentations, slurs, passing notes and chromaticism. The Andantes are all in a ‘cantabile’ style whereas the Allegros are hugely contrasting and positively frenetic. It is during the Allegro that the now famous Devil’s trill occurs. Preceded by double stops. the trill rises continuously from the key of D minor to G minor and then back again over an arpeggiated voice. There’s a second Devil’s Trill in the third Allegro section occurring on top of a different harmonic development over another arpeggiated figure. A final, abbreviated Devil Trill occurs in the final Allegro just before the end Adagio section which serves as a Coda.

So how do I personally feel about ‘Il Tillo Del Diavolo’? I find it hugely exciting and overwhelmingly emotional. Perhaps it is the influence of Tartini’s cultural heritage which I can hear in his music and can relate to? He was from Pirano in Istria, then part of Italy and now located in Slovenia. I spent many a childhood summer in Pirano visiting family friends. It’s location on the Adriatic coast, just at the cross roads between Italy and Eastern Europe it has soaked up flavour from both the earthy Balkan tradition and the very refined Venetians. These varied flavours can be heard in the possessed wild abandon of the Devil’s Trills and the almost rough, heavy handed flitting between keys. In the romantically sad Adagio sections… overblown and pregnant with pathos. It is all so very dramatic, passionate and imaginative. Very much to my taste.