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Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770)

Violin Sonatas

Adrian Chandler (violin), La Serenissima Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, United Kingdom
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: March 2024
Total duration: 75 minutes 34 seconds

Sometimes considered in the same breath as Vivaldi, Tartini's output differs in being almost exclusively centred on the instrument at which he himself excelled: the violin. The six sonatas here (he wrote over forty, along with a similar number of violin concertos) face their performers with formidable technical challenges, not infrequently approaching the soundworlds of, say, Paganini to come the best part of a century later. Adrian Chandler and members of La Serenissima show no fear …

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Tartini was born in the Istrian town of Pirano, then part of the Venetian Republic (after the Second World War, Pirano was assigned to the Free Territory of Trieste and in 1954 became part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. It is now part of Slovenia). Initially destined for the priesthood, he left the family home in 1708 to study law—like many aspiring clerics—at the University of Padua. However, despite his religious calling, he seems to have spent most of his time improving his fencing skills (whilst dressed as a priest), a talent in which few could match him.

In 1710, Tartini married Elisabetta Premazore, the mistress of Cardinal Giorgio Cornaro provoking untold fury both from the cardinal and from Tartini’s family (her social standing being deemed insufficient). Tartini fled to the Franciscan monastery at Assissi where he spent the next few years honing his violin technique and studying composition with the organist Bohuslav Černohorský. By all accounts those years were well spent as on his return to Padua in 1721, he was appointed primo violino e capo di concerto at the Basilica of S Antonio of Padua (Il Santo). He would later become one of the most celebrated violinists, teachers, and theorists of all time.

The rest of his career was mostly spent in Padua apart from a three-year period (1723-1726) when he visited Prague with his friend and cellist Antonio Vandini, for Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI’s coronation as King of Bohemia. One must bear in mind however, that Tartini’s speedy exit from Padua was partly necessitated by a desire to escape the wrath of a Venetian innkeeper who was accusing him of fathering his daughter’s new-born child. This aside, his Bohemian sojourn enabled Tartini to associate with some of the finest musicians of the Viennese court, notably Johann Joseph Fux, Antonio Caldara and Sylvius Leopold Weiss. Because of health problems caused by the climate, Tartini returned to Padua in 1726 and seldom left the city again other than to give concerts in Bologna, Camerino, Ferrara, Parma and Venice.

Tartini instead focussed himself on teaching commitments at his Scuola delle Nazioni (formed shortly after his return from Prague), theorising about music and violin technique, performing and composing. Apart from a handful of trio sonatas, sonate a quattro and some devotional vocal works (written towards the end of his life), the vast majority of Tartini’s compositions are made up of violin sonatas or concertos, most of which require the solo violinist to display a prodigious level of technique.

It is understandable that Tartini is often compared with Vivaldi: they both had links with the priesthood, lived in neighbouring cities, were famous virtuoso violinists and highly respected teachers, were roughly contemporary (and probably knew each other) and have been remembered for one piece above all others, both works which, interestingly, bear descriptive titles.

Whilst Tartini’s sonata known as Il Trillo del Diavolo ('The Devil’s Trill') has not enjoyed popularity to the extent of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni ('The Four Seasons'), it has, nevertheless, become legendary both for its fiendish level of technical wizardry and for the story that surrounds its origins. The French astronomer Jérôme Lalande published his account of a conversation with Tartini in his Voyage d’un François en Italie (1769) where the composer told him about a memorable dream:

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. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the 'Devil’s Trill', but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me.

The cult status achieved by this sonata has led many writers over the years to discuss its various aspects, from Leopold Mozart in his Violinschule (1756) who explains how to play Il trillo del diavolo al pie del letto ('The Devil’s trill at the foot of the bed'—this caption is taken from the version that appears in Jean-Baptiste Cartier’s L’Art du Violon (1798); the Devil’s trill itself is a chain of trills embellished with an accompanying lower part in the violin that appears thrice in in the sonata’s finale. It is not to be confused with the plethora of trills that appear in the second movement), to Sigmund Freud who includes a passage about Tartini’s dream in his book Die Traumdeutung or 'The Interpretation of Dreams' (1899).

Despite the level of discussion prompted by this piece, it is perhaps apt that the sonata is still surrounded by an air of mystery. Whilst it would be scurrilous to doubt Tartini’s statement as to the date of his dream, the date of composition for the sonata has long been debated with some asserting that the work was composed in the 1740s, not in 1713. In the absence of an autograph manuscript, it is difficult to say one way or the other. Personally, I think there could be a grain of truth in both arguments: whilst the second and third movements are more representative of Tartini’s earlier style, the opening movement, with its tricky double-stopping (including tenths, ninths and unisons), is similar to the kind of language found in the 26 Piccole Sonate that he sent to Frederick the Great via the diplomat Francesco Algarotti in February 1750 (the surviving autograph copy of these works also includes numerous extraneous movements, fragments and sketches).

Despite these stylistic differences, it is entirely possible that the opening movement was initially composed around 1713 without double-stopping (which is coincidentally how it appears in many nineteenth- and twentieth-century editions) but was then ‘modernised’ to include the double-stopping; such musical evolution was relatively common during this period. Many Vivaldi concertos for instance show huge numbers of alterations made to the original musical text; the concerto in D (RV210) is a good example of this trend where the outer movements in their final state are rendered almost unrecognisable when compared to the original draft of the concerto. It is worth also pointing out that Vivaldi borrows from a work that is much earlier in this instance, thus highlighting the pitfalls of dating a work on stylistic grounds alone.

Despite their many similarities, it must be emphasised that Tartini and Vivaldi were very different composers. Whilst both wrote a huge amount of repertoire for the violin, Vivaldi additionally composed concertos and sonatas for many other instruments as well as producing a prodigious quantity of vocal music both sacred and secular.

Charles de Brosses, the president of the Parlement de Dijon, encountered both composers during his Italian sojourn of 1739/40. One of the many letters sent by de Brosses during this trip recounts a meeting with Tartini who was keen to tell him that ‘I have been asked to work [i.e. compose] for theatres in Venice, and I have never wanted to, knowing full well that a throat is not a violin fingerboard. Vivaldi, who tried to compose in both genres, was always booed in one, whilst he was very successful in the other.’

Unlike Vivaldi, whose output is unashamedly catholic and extrovert, Tartini and his music appears to be more introverted, the creation of violin literature for him being something of a personal religion. Prior to periods of composition, he could be found musing over poetical texts, in particular opera libretti by Pietro Metastasio and Torquato Tasso’s 1581 Crusading epic La Gerusalemme Liberata ('Jerusalem Delivered') whose texts had incidentally been heavily mined by Venetian gondoliers for their songs, a further source of inspiration for Tartini.

Despite being a composer almost exclusively of instrumental music, text was considered by Tartini to be sacrosanct. Mottos frequently appear at the start of movements, usually in Tartini’s own system of hieroglyphs, whilst on other occasions whole stanzas or arias (normally given in standard text) can help set the mood. Both varieties can be found in many of the works included in the 26 Piccole Sonate (see above) such as the sonata in E minor (Be1): the opening movement is headed by the hieroglyphic motto Senti lo mare ('Listen to the sea'), whilst the last movement is preceded by an aria text from Metastasio’s Siroe which fits Tartini’s adopted cantabile style perfectly. Without the inclusion of this bleak text, one might be tempted to give an altogether feistier interpretation of this finale.

Despite sending a copy to Frederick the Great (who in return supplied Tartini with a musical subject akin to the soggetto reale he gave to Bach—although we are told that Tartini used this subject as a concerto theme, it is not known whether the concerto in question has survived), we are fortunate that Padua’s Biblioteca Antoniana possesses another autograph manuscript of these works. The e minor sonata was initially composed with a different finale which was subsequently crossed out; at a later date, Tartini then wrote an inscription directing the player to finish the work with a movement from the twentieth sonata in the collection.

In Tartini’s accompanying letter to Algarotti, he explains that these works can be performed either entirely alone or with the accompaniment of a cello (despite many movements and sometimes complete sonatas lacking a bass line). He himself professes a preference for the unaccompanied option. Both options are featured in this recording.

As with so many composers of the period, Tartini held the printed collections of Corelli’s works in extremely high regard. It is unsurprising that his Opus 1 sonatas (Amsterdam, 1734—the early publications of Tartini’s works are somewhat confusing. There exist three (!) publications titled 'Opus 1') paid significant homage to the man from Fusignano. Like Corelli’s Opus 5 sonatas, Tartini’s Opus 1 is organised into two books each containing six sonatas that imitate Corelli in different ways; the first features church sonatas, the highlight of each being the fugal second movement; the second is made up of chamber sonatas which draw heavily on dance music and finishes with a set of variations in further homage to Corelli; there is also an additional Pastorale for scordatura violin and continuo at the end of the second volume.

Unlike Corelli, the sonatas are mostly conceived as up to date three-movement works (slow-fast-fast), with the exception of the sixth sonata which has a second slow movement inserted before the finale. The three-movement sonata is typical of Tartini, though it is interesting to note that in addition to the sixth sonata, four of the other fugues in the more archaic church sonatas conclude with a brief slow section.

The Opus 1 combines several of Tartini’s ideals. His obsession with text is represented by his choice of dedicatee, in this case, Girolamo Ascanio Giustiniani, a Venetian nobleman and poet, whilst on a practical level, the demands of double-, triple- and quadruple-stopping and the use of the cantabile style are brought to the fore.

Adrian Chandler © 2023

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