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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.
The Sonata in G minor for Solo Violin, Devil’s Trill, is accompanied by a good deal of myth—even surrounding the issue of when Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770) wrote it. Instead of 1713, the year often claimed for this composition (when Tartini would have been a mere twenty-one), scholars date it from his maturity, likely in the 1730s or ’40s. But it’s impossible to know for sure, since Tartini’s extant manuscripts conspicuously lack dates—and he made a habit of coming back to pieces many years later to rework them.
The G minor Sonata did not appear complete in print until after the composer’s death, though a supernatural aura was already associated with it. In 1769, the astronomer and writer Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande published what became the canonical account of the sonata’s origin in his Italian travelogue, in which he attributes the following statement to Tartini:
“One night I dreamed I had made a bargain with the Devil for my soul....... I gave him my violin to see what he could do with it. How great was my astonishment to hear him play, with such consummate art and intelligence, a sonata more exquisitely beautiful than anything I had conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, spellbound. My breath failed me, and I awoke. At once seizing my violin, I tried to retain the sounds I had heard in my dream. But it was in vain. The music I then composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I call it the ‘Devil’s Sonata,’ but it is so inferior to the one I heard in my dream that I would have destroyed my instrument, bidding farewell to music forever, if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it gives me.”
No marketing genius could have devised a more effective campaign to enhance the reputation of this sonata, which Brahms ranked among his favorites. The “diabolical” element here is by no means limited to fiendish technical challenges— double stops (playing two notes simultaneously), trilling on one string while executing a separate line of cantabile—but also refers to the enchanting beauty produced by these feats.
The piece was published as a violin sonata with basso continuo accompaniment, but Michael Barenboim explains that “nothing substantial is missing without the continuo part” and that he attempted “to integrate aspects of the continuo” into the solo part, adding that as a result, “the sonata’s intensity is far greater as a solo work,” giving the interpreter a freer rein.
Beginning with a striking G minor melody cast in a lilting rhythm, the opening movement is answered by an Allegro “in the tempo suited to the School of Tartini”—a pattern of dreamy, slow music followed by faster and more agitated writing that is replicated in the last movement, where Tartini depicts his famous dream. For Barenboim, the Devil’s Trill Sonata traces a course that leads inevitably to the diabolical as it moves from “canonic beauty” and becomes increasingly “scratchy, rough, and harsh, and the trills send you to hell—at least when they are performed in a subtle manner.”—THOMAS MAY
 
 
THOMAS MAY is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.