Tartini composed well over 100 concertos and over 200 sonatas of various kinds, most of which remained in manuscript and are difficult to date accurately. Even publication makes a poor guide – five different volumes were published in Amsterdam between 1728 and 1734 as Tartini’s “Op. 1,” for example. The Sonata we know as “The Devil’s Trill” did not see print until 1798. It comes with a story, however, that was current during Tartini’s lifetime, attributing the work to 1713 (or 1730, or 1765…). Tartini had a dream in which he imagined a deal with the Devil, who proceeded to demonstrate the best solo Tartini had ever heard. Upon waking Tartini wrote down this music, despite feeling that it was so inferior to what he had heard in his dream that he would have broken his violin and abandoned music, if only he had any other way to live.
The violin is emphatically the lead instrument in this sonata, supported only by a bass line with coded indications for harmonies. This “continuo” part would have been played (“realized”) by a bass instrument (such as the cello) and a chordal instrument (keyboard or lute). The opening movement is a lilting lullaby, its gentle insistence hinting at darker things to come. A crisp bravura movement follows, before a slow passage that is supposed to represent Tartini’s dream state. This slow music alternates with another Allegro (a loose variant of the second movement) that includes the actual “Devil’s Trill” passage, a rising sequence of double stops with the trill on the upper string. The great violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), who was also a fine composer, made an edition of the Sonata that includes an even more devilish cadenza.
- John Henken