Music and Dreams – The Devil’s Trill

Feb 17, 2023

Music and Dreams – The Devil’s Trill

A Maestro Violinist’s Greatest Lament

The year was 1713. Giuseppi Tartini, a well known 18th century Italian composer and theorist who was also a leading violinist and teacher in Europe during his time, had the following dream:

I had made a pact with the devil and he was at my service. Everything went as I wished; my requests were always anticipated, and my desires always met and even surpassed by my new servant. At last, I decided to give him my violin in order to see if he would be able to play  something beautiful.

Oh was I shocked to hear such a beautiful and unique sonata ! The devil played with such superiority and intelligence. I’ve never heard anything like it, nor would I have ever conceived of anything that could come close to it. I was in such a state of disbelief, rapture, and pleasure at the same time that I literally lost my breath.

~ translated and paraphrased from Lalande’s Voyage d’un Français en Italie, 1769.

Woken up by a violent sensation, Tartini jumped to his feet and immediately grabbed his violin in order to capture at least a part of what he had heard in his dream. The Devil’s Trill (Il trillo del diavolo), Tartini’s most famous sonata, was thus born. Among the 100 plus concertos and 200 or more sonatas Tartini composed, The Devil’s Trill was by far the most well known, though this extraordinary piece of music was not published until nearly thirty years after his death.

“Whence and how they come, I know not…the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind…All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing lively dream”

Amadeus Mozart, in reference to his compositions

Sought after by aristocratic and royal courts across Europe for his technically brilliant yet poetic play, Tartini also made unique contribution to the art and science of violin playing as a musical instrument theorist. Tartini was furthermore the founder of a reputable violin school which in its forty years of history produced over seventy violinists of note. Highly respected and accomplished, why would Tartini hide away such a masterpiece for nearly sixty years without making it known to the public?

One clue might be found in Tartini’s confessional account as documented by Joseph-Jérôme Lalande in his travels through Italy at that time. For whatever Tartini had been able to capture from the fragments of his dream, it paled in comparison to the virtuoso performance he was given by the devil. Described by those who studied him to be modest and timid in his manners, Tartini’s sense of exasperation was underlined when he said he wished he was able to go on living without all that the violin brings him, because the anguish of not being able to reproduce what he heard made him want to smash his violin to bits and say good-bye to music forever!

Clearly, Tartini did not feel what he had cobbled together from his dream was worthy of its original source. Perhaps it was the sense of shame and inadequacy, while difficult to imagine for a musician of Tartini’s stature, that prevented him from making public what is to become his most celebrated piece after his departure from this world. Regardless, Tartini’s dream from 1713 left us with a masterpiece that has the power to take its listeners on a voyage into the realm of seemingly ephemeral beauty, illumination and longing.

“Art on the highest level is concerned with the reproduction of inner nature”

Unknown, in reference to Aristotle’s quote about art

Illustration Credits: Louis-Lépold Boilly

H. D. Lee

Article by H.D. Lee

Founder of Nomadic School. Committed to the spiritual adventure of his own life and the role of midwifing beauty, goodness, and truth into the world, H.D. Lee is here to share what he has learned through his teachers and peers in transpersonal psychology, spirituality, and the arts. Read more