Giuseppe Tartini
“Devil’s Trill” Sonata, by Giuseppe Tartini


Excerpt from Devil's Trill by Gerald Elias


"He (Tartini) dreamed one night, in 1713, that he had made a compact with the Devil, who promised him to be at his service on all occasions; and during this vision everything succeeded according to his mind. In short, he imagined he gave the Devil his violin, in order to discover what kind of musician he was; when to his great astonishment, he heard him play a solo so singularly beautiful and executed with such superior taste and precision, that it surpassed all he has ever heard or conceived in his life.

So great was his surprise and so exquisite his delight upon this occasion that it deprived him of the power of breathing. He awoke with the violence of his sensation and instantly seized his fiddle in hopes of expressing what he had just heard, but in vain; he, however, then composed a piece, which is perhaps the best of all his works (he called it the “Devil’s Sonata”) but it was so inferior to what his sleep had produced that he declared he should have broken his instrument and abandoned music forever, if he could have subsisted by any other means."

As told to Joseph Jerome Lefrancais de Lalande by Giuseppe Tartini in his “Voyage d’un Francais en Italie” and translated by Dr. Charles Burney.


Music from Devil's Trill
Giuseppe Tartini - Devil's Trill

Devil’s Trill Sonata
final movement, by Giuseppe Tartini,
performed by Gerald Elias and Victor Rosenbaum



The title of my book “Devil’s Trill,” is taken from a sonata of the same name by Giuseppe Tartini, one of the great Italian Baroque composer/violinists who flourished in the first half of the 18th century.  The original title of my book was “Violin Lessons,” but after my agent said, “Jerry, you’ve got to lose that title,” I decided “Devil’s Trill” would be much catchier.

The reason for the title, though, goes much deeper. For one, it is the first piece that the young violinist, Yumi Shinagawa, plays for her new teacher, Daniel Jacobus, and which gives him immediate insight into her intriquing personality. 

Further, as we know from Tartini’s own words, one night in 1713 he was awoken from his sleep to find the Devil at the foot of his bed.  He handed the Devil his violin, who played with such brilliance that it left Tartini breathless.  When Tartini again awoke later in the morning he tried to write down what he had heard, but felt that his efforts were a dismal failure in comparison.  Nevertheless, it turned out to be his most famous work, the Devil’s Trill sonata.  And just as Tartini was confronted by the Devil at the foot of his bed, so too, almost three centuries later, is Daniel Jacobus confronted by his own personal demons in the form of the Piccolino Stradivarius.  That the two musicians may have been tied together by this one diabolical violin becomes the thread that ties my book together.

Before you listen to the last movement of the Devil’s Trill Sonata, I should mention that the standard Baroque sonata is in four movements: slow-fast-slow-fast.  But Tartini does something very distinctive here.  The first two movements go according to form, but there is only one more movement, and in that he does something quite unique.  Rather than having a movement of just one tempo, he alternates between slow and fast sections several times.  My interpretation of this novel idea is based on the concept that the slow sections, which are pleading, almost despairing, represent Tartini, whereas the fast dazzlingly demonic sections represent the Devil, setting up a highly dramatic dialogue between the two characters.  One clue we have to validate this conclusion is Tartini’s insertion of the words: “the Devil at the foot of the bed” in the first of the fast sections, at the moment where Tartini calls upon the performer to execute the so-called “Devil’s Trill,” in which the violinist plays a trill with two fingers on one string while simultaneously playing arpeggios with the other two fingers on an adjacent string.  Quite a diabolical feat and revolutionary for his day.  Perhaps Tartini’s dream wasn’t a dream after all!