The Devil’s Trill Sonata

by Thomas Stiegler

The Devil’s Trill Sonata

by Thomas Stiegler

Assisi in the summer of 1710.

It is night and people are resting in their beds. Only the wind blows softly over the hot fields and makes the stalks dance. Otherwise there is silence, oppressive silence. But if you listen carefully, you hear soft footsteps and you can see a shadow creeping up to the gate of the monastery. You might also catch a soft thump and, after some hesitation, the footsteps of the old gatekeeper, who disappears again with a few murmured words.

Then everything is quiet again. The night is silent and seems to hold its breath until the abbot’s face, illuminated by the glow of a torch, appears in the peephole. He examines the nocturnal visitor, gives a silent command and soon the gate opens. The shadow slips behind the safety of the time-honoured monastery walls and the light goes out.

And now there really is silence. It is a leaden calm, almost like before a storm. For many years the young man who had once crept so desperately through the darkness of night was not to be seen again in the turmoil of the world, until, inwardly transformed and matured, he emerged into the light of day as the greatest violinist of his time.

We are talking, of course, about Giuseppe Tartini, who created one of the most famous works in violin literature, the so-called “Devil’s Trill Sonata”. Coming from a wealthy family, he was destined for a clerical career from an early age, and so he first studied humanities, rhetoric and music at the University of Padua. But soon the hustle and bustle of the streets and the temptations of the profane world were to captivate him and keep him away from his studies. For instead of the lecture halls, he was increasingly seen on the fencing floor, where he fought duels with his friends, or in the city’s wildest taverns and dives.

And then he also lost his heart, a moment that was to be decisive for the rest of his life, even if for the time being it led to greater misfortune – for on the one hand, his beloved came from a bitterly poor family and was therefore not a suitable match for a Tartini, and on the other hand, she was also connected to the Cardinal of Padua in a relationship that can no longer be precisely explained today. Officially, it was true that the cardinal regularly supported girls from poorer circles by furnishing them and giving them a lavish dowry on marriage. But in this case (more than it seemed moral) he was dismayed that his “protégé” really wanted to marry Elisabetta, and so he filed a complaint against the young groom.

He had every reason to do so: not only was the marriage against the express wishes of the groom’s parents (his father is said to have even died prematurely out of despair over it), but the 18-year-old Galan had already received his first Holy Orders and was now nonetheless marrying Elisabetta, who was two years older, in public.

Finally, charges were officially brought against him and the local authorities sent out their henchmen after him. The only way out seemed to him to disguise himself as a pilgrim, say goodbye to his young wife and secretly flee the city – to the only place that seemed safe to him: behind the thick walls of the Franciscan monastery in Assisi, where he knew his uncle was the abbot. Here, almost as if under the special protection of St. Francis, he was to mature into the most important virtuoso of his time and at the same time acquire profound knowledge of composing. At the same time as Tartini was hiding from the world, a Franciscan priest from Prague was living in the monastery, whom everyone called “Il Boemo”, the Bohemian, and who was the most famous composer in the Czech Republic at the time: Padre Bohuslav Matěj Černohorský.


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In 1714, Tartini believed it was time to leave the monastery. And indeed, enough grass seemed to have grown over his sins, for the authorities in Padua pardoned him and he became an orchestral musician in Assisi and Ancona and, after only a few years, the orchestra director of the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, that is, in the very city from which he had once so shamefully fled.

However, perhaps also influenced by his long stay far away from the hustle and bustle of the world, he was not a man who quietly performed his duties, but undertook numerous journeys on which he also had the time to indulge his dreams and thoughts. What occupied him most was a vision he had during his years in the monastery. He himself would later tell the following about it in a letter to the astronomer Jérôme Lalande:

“One night in 1713 I dreamt that I had made a pact with the devil, that he should be my servant. Everything went according to my command, my new domestic knew in advance all my wishes. Then I had the idea of leaving him my fiddle and seeing what he would do with it. How great was my astonishment when I heard him play with consummate skill a sonata of such exquisite beauty that my wildest expectations were exceeded. I was enraptured, enraptured and enchanted; my breath caught and I awoke. Then I picked up my violin and tried to reproduce the sounds. But in vain. The piece I then wrote may be the best I have ever composed, but it falls far short of what had so enraptured me in the dream. For I would probably have broken my violin in two and given up music forever if I had succeeded in actually recording the joys of that dream.”

For almost twenty years he was to struggle to set this vision as truthfully as possible to music, but it was not until 1730 that he seemed to have succeeded. This is the “Devil’s Trill Sonata” for violin and basso continuo, still so famous today, with its three movements in the order that Tartini seems to have invented for this sonata alone: slow-fast-fast.

The first movement is a gently reflective Siciliano, dominated by a softly flowing melody. It is followed by a more animated second movement, which begins with a powerful main idea and is dominated by sparkling sixteenth-note figures. In the third movement we finally hear the devil’s music so familiar. This is a brilliant “Allegro assai” in which wild outbursts alternate with slowly meditative passages, and one should definitely listen to Izthak Perlman’s still unsurpassed recording!

The form of this sonata was so unusual that people have always suspected a hidden programme behind it. And perhaps it really is that the slow introduction of the 3rd movement depicts a sleeper plagued by visions of the devil (expressed by the Allegro outbursts). In these wildly bursting Allegro sections we also find the trill to which the piece owes its name and which was transfigured by later generations into the “devil’s trill”. This is only too understandable, for the violinist needs truly “devilish powers” in order to play a melody under the trill that shines irrelavently as it rises ever higher. An effect that was so new around 1730 that it could apparently only be explained by the work of the devil, and which even today only selected virtuosos manage.


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But let us return to Giuseppe Tartini and his life’s journey.

From the 1720s onwards, he was to restore his reputation and eventually become a respected member of Paduan society. As already mentioned, he became director of music at the Basilica of St Anthony and through his studies he was soon also known as a scholar. He was even to found his own violin school, which he called the “School of the Nations” and in which two generations of European violinists matured into the leading virtuosos of their time. He also had the leisure to write several works on music theory, including one on musical ornamentation.

His private life was also to take a turn for the better: Cardinal Giorgio Cornaro forgave the young Elisabetta her infidelity, pardoned the young violinist and finally gave his blessing to the marriage union that was so hastily concluded. There are hardly any testimonies of Elisabetta left today, but she is said to have been “… a personality of great warmth, tenderness, extreme sensitivity and an unpretentiousness and personal modesty …”. So her happiness was also fulfilled and she lived a long and contented life with her Giuseppe until they both finally died at the end of the 1760s, only two years apart.

After their deaths, a rumour soon arose, probably fuelled by Tartini’s visions of the devil, that he and his wife were haunting the church of Santa Caterina, where their tomb was also located. And really: when the graves were opened, their bones seemed to have disappeared. So you see: even a Tartini was not allowed to play with the devil!

Read more in my new book: Cultural Histories of Europe

Literature used

On request, we will gladly send you the text incl. footnotes as a Pdf file!




“One night in 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil, …. : Online Source: Chamber Music Guide, Works/1799


“… a personality of great warmth, tenderness, … : Online Source: “The Monk, the Cardinal, and the Devil, Giuseppe Tartini and Elisabetta Premazore”; translation by the author.

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