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Giuseppe Tartini

born: 8 April 1692
died: 26 February 1770
country: Italy

To his contemporaries, Tartini was a figure of major importance. That his work as violinist, composer and teacher was enthusiastically admired and worthy of emulation is evident from the writings of Quantz, Leopold Mozart and Dr Charles Burney, and from the number of violinists who journeyed to Padua to study with him. His writings on musical theory had a more mixed response, but his acoustical and philosophical speculations were widely discussed as matters of importance. In a somewhat shadowy way, his fame has persisted through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; students of the history of violin playing have been aware of the letter, often reprinted, to Maddalena Lombardini on the fundamental principles of violin playing, and, above all, the well-known story of the origin of his ‘Devil’s Trill’ Sonata has kept his name alive.

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 composed from Tartini’s ‘scattered recollection’ of his dream has never fallen out of the violin repertoire, but only one other work, the G minor Sonata from the collection published in 1734 and known by its nineteenth-century nickname, ‘Didone abbandonata’, is at all familiar. There are now encouraging signs, however, that Tartini is being rediscovered, with recordings available of a wider range of his music, and his fine Treatise on Ornamentation, which served as the model for the corresponding chapters of Leopold Mozart’s violin school, available in print. Unlike his older contemporary Vivaldi, he did not diversify into dramatic works and large-scale church music, nor did he write concertos or sonatas for a wide range of instruments. The overwhelming majority of his works falls into just two categories: sonatas for a solo violin with basso continuo, and violin concertos with accompanying strings.

The biography of most major violinists includes reference to their early mastery of the instrument, and tours as child prodigies, but not Tartini’s. He was born in Pirano, on the Adriatic coast near Trieste (now Piran, in Slovenia). His parents wanted him to enter the priesthood; in 1708, however, he travelled to Padua and enrolled as a law student, but apparently spent most of his time dressed in priestly garb indulging his passion for fencing. Two years later he upset his clerical sponsors and his parents by getting married. Leaving his bride in Padua, he fled to Assisi, where he seems to have occupied himself by studying composition with the expatriate Bohemian organist Bohuslav Cernohorský. It was at this time, too, that he began to acquire a reputation as a violinist, especially after 1715, when, pardoned by the Bishop of Padua, he returned to his wife, dividing his time between Padua and Venice. A further period of intense study is said to have been prompted by hearing the great violinist Veracini in Venice; after this, his own reputation grew very quickly, and in 1721 he was appointed to a prestigious post as leader of the orchestra at St Anthony’s Basilica in Padua. He kept this position until he retired, more than forty years later, but was often absent playing elsewhere—from 1723 to 1726 he was in Prague, where he performed at the festivities attending the coronation of the Emperor Charles VI. In the 1720s, too, his music began to be widely known; the first publication, in Amsterdam in 1728, was of six concertos, Op 1. (Two further sets of concertos, as well as two different collections of sonatas, were also described as Op 1.)

Tartini’s theory of music was based upon his discovery early in his career of the combination tone—the lower, third pitch that can be heard whenever two different pitches are sounded together, whose frequency is the difference between the frequencies to the two sounded notes. We can easily imagine Tartini spending hours a day to perfect the intonation of his double-stopping, becoming acutely aware of these ‘natural’ bass notes. In an age that saw the aim of art to be the imitation of nature, this palpable presence of harmony in the natural world formed a persuasive basis for a view of music as a reflection of divine harmony. And we can well believe that in his violin concertos Tartini used his knowledge of the combination tones to space the voices of his four-part string textures so as to produce the open, luminous sound that is one of his fingerprints. His musical landscapes contain human figures, too, and here again he is concerned to refer to human emotions in a precise way. Many of his manuscript scores are prefaced by quotations, sometimes written in code, most often from Metastasio’s opera libretti, the music underneath being a mute setting of the words.

from notes by Duncan Druce © 2003


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