Inspired by a vivid dream, the best-known work of the gifted violinist Giuseppe Tartini is a haunting solo piece, the “Devil’s Trill” (Trillo del Diavolo) done in several movements. Properly described as Violin Sonata in G Minor, the technically demanding 15-minute composition dates to the 18th century but is perennially popular in modern performances, featuring the master’s unique style of bowing, and namesake “trills” or “shakes,” distinctive musical ornaments consisting of a rapid alternation between two adjacent notes.
Tartini, a Roman Catholic, was appointed violinist and orchestra conductor at the Cathedral of Padua, Italy. Shortly before he died, he privately recounted the unholy origin of the understandably secret solo to French astronomer, writer and atheist, Jérôme Lalande, who included it in a travel memoir, but the mysterious sonata was only published three decades later in 1799. While translations differ slightly, it is a fascinating account.
“One night, in the year 1713, I dreamed I had made a pact with the Devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and I awoke.”….