Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


SO HERE’S this rich kid from what’s now Slovenia, back then the Republic of Venice when he lived at the turn of the 18th century. He marries beneath his class, but, what’s worse, chooses the wrong woman altogether and ticks off a Cardinal of Holy Mother the Church. He goes on the lam, works his fiddle, and, the next thing you know, he’s a composer selling his soul to the devil.

Need I mention that Giuseppe Tartini was the first known owner of a Stradivarius? And that maybe he had six fingers on his left hand?

Who says classical music is dull?

Giuseppe Tartini, 1692–1770, Venetian composer and violinist in the Baroque period.

Giuseppe was born in 1692 into one of oldest aristocratic families of Piran, a town on the Istria peninsula now part of Slovenia, back then part of the Venice city state. His father had hopes he’d become a Franciscan friar, but Giuseppe preferred studying law at the University of Padua; the city much later famed in the Kiss Me Kate musical’s “I’ve Come to Wed Wealthily in Padua.”

Rather than wealthily, Giuseppe wedded inadvisedly. He became enamored with Elisabetta Premazore, much to his father’s disapproval, what with her being of a lower social class and with a perceived age difference.

When the old man died in 1710, Giuseppe and Elisabetta got secretly espoused. My old pal Nick Slonimsky shares the dirt on this in his The Concise Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 1993. As for the age difference, Giuseppe was 19; Elisabetta was 21. No biggie.

More critically, though, according to Slonimsky, Elisabetta was “a protégée” of the powerful Cardinal Giorgio Cornaro. These acute accents suggest Nick’s sense of language propriety; his word choice also avoids a more explicit description of the relationship between young Elisabetta and the cardinal.

In any event, notes Slonimsky, Cardinal Cornaro vengefully brought a charge of abduction against Giuseppe. Tartini promptly lit out for Assisi and took refuge in the monastery of the Friars Minor Conventual, aka the Conventual Franciscans.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi. Image by Bertold Werner.

So, in a sense, posthumously Tartini’s father saw his son hanging out with Franciscans. Giuseppe was safe from the vengeful Cardinal Cornaro, he got a violin gig with Assisi’s opera orchestra, and in 1715 was pardoned by the Padua authorities.

Alas, nothing more is heard of Elisabetta. But maybe the cardinal balanced his vengeance with forgiveness.

In 1715, Tartini bought a violin from a fellow named Antonio Stradivari. Indeed, this instrument is recognized as the first Stradivarius. In time, it passed from Tartini to his student Salvini, to the Polish composer Karol Lipiński. In 2012, the Lipiński Stradivarius, as it is known, was appraised at $5 million. Today, it’s owed anonymously, on loan to Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The Lipiński Stradivarius, played by Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Image by Alison Sherwood, the Chicago Tribune.

Once free to travel, Tartini worked the chamber musician gig back in Padua, then to Prague, then back to Padua again where he organized a music school in 1728. His reputation as violinist, teacher, and composer grew.

Indeed, such was Tartini’s Stradivarius virtuosity so historically renowned that in the 19th century it was rumored he had had six fingers on his left hand. Nick Slonimsky makes no mention of this.

On the other hand, Tartini’s encounter with the devil is recounted by the composer himself in Lalande’s Voyage d’un François en Italie, 1765 and 1766. An excerpt: “One night in the year 1713 I dreamed that I made a pact with the devil for my soul.… 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.”

For more details, see Wikipedia’s entry on Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor aka “The Devil’s Trill Sonata.”

Tartini’s Dream, by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1799. “The Devil’s Trill Sonata” gets intense about two-thirds of the way through.

Tartini attempted to recreate Old Scratch’s sonata, but later wrote, “so inferior to what I had heard, that if I could have subsisted on other means, I would have broken my violin and abandoned music forever.”

Had Elisabetta still been around, I suspect she would have said, “Seppe, just go get packed for that Prague gig.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: