A violin sonata by the Italian composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770). The piece is often considered one of the most difficult works for that instrument. Looking at my copy of the sheet music, I can understand why. I've played the violin for some seven years (though, having stopped actually learning late in high school, I'm not exactly at the peak of my ability), and I have no hope of being able to get past maybe two pages. Ever.

The violin sheet music for the arrangement I have is eight pages long. It starts slowly, but picks up the pace before the violinist has to turn a page. The music itself, once you pass the introduction, is almost entirely eighth and sixteenth notes -- not that intimidating on the face of it (Pachelbel's Kanon in D had a couple of sections with thirty-secondth notes), but there are two things about this which inspire paralyzing fear.

First, they're played fast. Allegro assai is a common sight in the notes, and at one point Tartini apparently invents his own tempo -- not knowing Italian, that's my guess as to what "Tempo giusto della Scuola Tartinista" means.

Second, Tartini seems to have had eight fingers on his left hand. That's the only explanation I can give for his insane chords, reaching across multiple strings, thrown one after the other in blistering succession. Near the end of the piece, there are sections in which the violinist is supposed to play trilling chords -- two fingers alternate notes as fast as possible on one string, one finger holds down another string, all while the right arm scrapes the bow across.

For all that it's next to impossible to play, the Devil's Trill is an astonishingly beautiful piece of music with an interesting history. According to legend, Tartini saw Satan himself in a dream, standing at the foot of his bed. Not having anything else to do, the composer handed his violin to the devil, who promptly played the "original" Devil's Trill. Tartini was so captivated by the melody that he stopped breathing; supposedly, the shock woke him. He instantly grabbed the violin and tried to reproduce the devil's tune, but was never satisfied with his rendering. The sonata was only published well after his death.

Giuseppe Tartini was a violinist and composer of the 18th century; a Venetian by birth, primarily noted now for being one of the students of a well-known master of the violin. In Tartini's case, he encountered this august personage in a dream, one worth recounting in his own words:

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!

The mundane name of this piece is »Violin Sonata in G Minor«; it not only remains Tartini's most popular work, it is in fact one of only two pieces of his which retain any durability at all in the conventional repertoire. This more than anything might induce us to believe Tartini's story, for the combination of circumstances is well known to those who study such things: the single immortal work, the crushing inferiority to the master, the sense of failure even as the masterpiece is created, are familiar traits of that bargain.


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