“Show business is one of the few businesses that the devil will actually agree to own just a portion of your soul because he knows if you have a performer’s ego you were probably working for him all along” – Marc Maron
The Devil hasn’t really been directly involved with a chart-topping album since Snoop Dogg’s 1993 “Doggystyle”. Rumor is he decided to become a producer, since the limelight has never been a key element of his marketing style. He prefers to work in the background. Satan’s participation in the music industry has varied over the years, ranging from going down to Georgia to inspiring the sympathy of the Rolling Stones to cutting crossroads deals for supernatural guitar skills with blues great Robert Johnson, but let’s face it, the Prince of Darkness is kind of old school. He prefers the classics. The seven deadly sins, for instance. He hasn’t really commented on abortion, gay marriage, socialism, taxes, or any of our other modern hot button issues, whereas God is eternally concerned with being hip, and endlessly expresses his opinion on every new social or technological innovation. Or at least his fan club does. Let’s face it, the Devil is classical. As it turns out, the Devil’s career as a composer peaked in the 18th Century, or at least that was the last time he actually got song writing credits and displayed his musical artistry. Italian violin virtuoso Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) covered the Trillo del Diavolo (“The Devil’s Trill”), which he admitted to first hearing in a dream where he sold his soul, bemoaning that his rendition paled in comparison to the Devil’s original.
Officially known as Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor (listen at “Tartini Violin Sonata in G minor”), but more commonly referred to as “The Devil’s Trill Sonata”, this violin solo is still considered one of the most technically demanding pieces ever written, even for experienced violinists, and although Tartini himself was considered one of the finest Italian baroque violinists and composers, even among his contemporaries, he nonetheless despaired that he was never able to capture the Devil’s virtuosity. In terms of legal technicalities, Tartini sold his soul to the Devil in a dream in exchange for the score to the Devil’s Trill, rather than doing so with waking, conscious malice, so it’s highly unlikely that the contract was binding, which just goes to show that sometimes diabolical musical aspirations trump an extra soul here or there. Musicians are a competitive lot, after all. Satan probably wouldn’t want too many of the talented ones cramping his style in Hell. Besides, the rock star lifestyle offers ample opportunities to get oneself eternally damned, independent of the finer points of any music contracts. Historians of classical music invariably give the Devil his due when discussing Tartini’s work. “Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata (Il Trillo del Diavolo) – Tartini was a bit of a mystic – came to him in a dream, and if it really was inspired by the devil, proves that whatever his other faults, His Satanic Majesty is a musician of the ﬁrst order” (Auer, 1925, p2). The short version of Tartini’s biography glosses over the reasons why the Devil might have chosen to collaborate with him.
This celebrated violinist was born at Pirano, in Istria, on April 8th, 1692. He was educated for the law, first in his native town, and then at Padua. During this time he began his studies in violin playing, and he continued to perfect himself in the art after he had finished his career as a law student. In the year 1709 he had acquired much reputation as a violin player in Padua. It was in the year 1713 that he wrote the work that has done so much for his fame, his “Trillo del Diavolo,” commonly known as “Tartini’s Dream.” It received that name from a legendary story that he was first inspired with the theme by a dream which he had that the devil appeared before him and played it to him, upon which he immediately awoke and wrote it down. He was appointed to the office of Director of an Orchestra in Padua, and afterwards went to Prague, where he remained three years. He died at Padua on February 26th, 1770 (Foucher, 1897, p50).
The truth is Tartini, beyond being an accomplished violinist, was a man after the Devil’s own heart. Not only did they share a passion for music, but also a love of fighting, and a propensity towards dangerous amorous liaisons. In Tartini’s youth, he was torn between equally appealing and promising careers as a violinist or fencing master. He was actually also studying law the whole time he was giving violin and fencing lessons to the Paduan elite. In short, if you made fun of his violin playing, he could run you through without breaking a sweat, and then probably get himself acquitted of all charges. Unfortunately, Giuseppe Tartini did the one thing that could overly complicate the life of the Baroque equivalent of a trust fund kid. He fell in love, and as Joan Crawford once said, “Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell”.
Giuseppe, however, without exactly neglecting these supposedly most important duties, found it more to his liking to work at music. And particularly at the violin, on which he had been instructed as a boy, and also to perfect himself in fencing. In this art he became so proficient that he seriously contemplated giving up the law to become a fencing master at Naples or Paris, when, to crown his youthful indiscretions, he fell in love with a young Paduan lady, who had been his pupil (whether in fencing, the law or in violin we do not know) and forthwith the young couple proceeded to get married. Then his troubles began. His indignant parents withdrew their support and at the same time the uncle of the bride, a Cardinal, empowered by her family, threatened to prosecute the penniless young husband. To put himself beyond the reach of family revenge Tartini had to leave his bride and flee. It was his intention to go, disguised as a pilgrim to Rome, but after some wanderings through the land he sought and found refuge in a Minorite Cloister at Assisi (Stoeving, 1928, p32-33).
Forcibly separated from his beloved and despondently hanging out with a bunch of monks in fear for his life, Tartini had a visionary visit from Old Nick himself, who seeing a kindred musical spirit, demonstrated his surprisingly infernal soft spot for classical violinists. In 1765, Tartini unabashedly recounted the origin of the Devil’s Trill Sonata to his friend, the astronomer Joseph Jerome Lefrancais de Lalande (1732-1807).
At this period the “Devil’s Trill” Sonata had already been composed, the story of which Tartini himself told thus: “One night I dreamt that I had sold my soul to the devil. All went well; my new servant appeared at my every wish. Once I lent him my violin to see if he could play anything thereon that was in truth fine and distinguished. Think of my amazement when I heard a sonata so beautiful, and played with such art and intelligence that not even the highest flight of fancy could equal it! I was so overcome, so charmed, so entranced, that I almost ceased to breathe, and—awoke. Immediately I grasped my violin in order to preserve at least a part of the piece I had heard in my dreams. In vain! The music I then composed is indeed the best I produced in my whole life, and I called it the “Devil’s Sonata,” but the difference between it and that I heard is so great that I would have destroyed my violin and forgotten forever the music, had it been possible for me to forego the pleasure I then enjoyed” (Ehrlich, 1906, p158-159).
Now, it would be unreasonable to recommend any sort of pact with diabolical powers in furtherance of your musical career, but it does seem the Devil has a measure of professional courtesy towards accomplished musicians. Or perhaps those of us who languish in tone deafness and the inability to play a note are just jealous, for as H.L. Mencken observed, “The theory seems to be that as long as a man is a failure he is one of God’s children, but that as soon as he succeeds he is taken over by the Devil”. At least the apocalypse might be accompanied by a good soundtrack.
Auer, Leopold, 1845-1930. Violin Master Works And Their Interpretation. New York: C. Fischer, 1925.
Ehrlich, A., 1842-1921, and Robin Humphrey Legge. Celebrated Violinists, Past And Present. 2nd ed. London: “The Strad”, 1906.
Foucher, G. Treatise On the History & Construction of the Violin: With a Short Account of the Lives of Its Greatest Players And Makers. Written Especially for the Use of Students Preparing for the Examinations of the College of Violinists. London: [Printed by E. Shore and co.], 1897.
Stoeving, Paul, 1861-. The Violin: Its Famous Makers And Players. Boston: Oliver Ditson company, 1928.