Review Summary: Easy to listen to and smooth in its modifications from movement to movement, the sonata sustains its appeal with a flashiness that’s highly ornamental but not fraught.
Violin Sonata in G Minor, also known as “The Devil’s Trill” is a 4-movement piece from the early eighteenth century by Venetian composer Guiseppe Tartini. Tartini’s not exactly an unpopular composer, and certainly wasn’t unknown in his day, but still is known for little else than a few pieces and this sonata is by far his most famous. Nonetheless, it’s easy to tell why this particular composition has received the most acclaim. The story goes that Tartini witnessed the devil play the most dexterous and moving violin solo in a dream, which allegedly made such a powerful impact on him that he felt compelled to recreate what he’d heard. According to legend, if the composer didn’t at least try, he’d have suffered the burden of knowing nothing he’d create in its wake would compare for the rest of his life, a burden he evidently couldn’t bear.
So, Tartini clearly was inspired with this composition, and in his awe created something that sounds inspirational, or at the very least, meant to inspire. It’s not the kind of piece that takes a few tries to get
, or sounds specifically meant for those who can or claim to objectively discern what’s good, truly skillful music from what’s not. This, rather, feels immediately ready for the ears of people from all walks of life.
Easy to listen to and smooth in its modifications from movement to movement, the sonata sustains its appeal with a flashiness that’s highly ornamental but not fraught, the frequent trappings tastefully incorporated. The sharp attention to details that Tartini paid keeps the sonata from feeling ostentatious. The opening movement is slow and melancholic, and closes with tortured sequences at the same pitch to lead into the second movement, which is fast and wherein promptly emerges the main theme. Here, the adornments are abundant, and possibly prevent the movement from capturing some of expression of the first movement but Tartini I think filled the deficit with highly danceable melodies. Both the first and second movement are equally brief, and the third movement which follows is even shorter, seeming more like an interlude than a movement. Where the first movement is melancholic, the third is simply cheerless, providing a melodic and temporal contrast to the final movement. In listening to the final movement, it feels like everything that came before was a feint for the devil’s real
arrival, which is defined by the multitude of trills that emerge to kind of compress the main theme. The continuous embellishments make the dramatic measures at the very end of the composition incredibly satisfying.
The piece has a solidity to it and expressiveness that's ahead of its time. There’s some debate about the date Tartini actually finished the composition, but it’s mostly considered to belong to the Baroque era. Even so, the piece does not sound particularly Baroque. The mischaracterization may be attributed to Tartini’s identity as a violinist, which may have been even more salient than his identity as a composer. Whatever the reason, he’s left behind a piece that's timeless for us to enjoy today.