One of the tropes that runs through Western folklore is the association of the Devil with music, and specifically with the violin. This goes hand-in-hand with another theme, that of selling one’s soul to the devil in return for some prowess or special knowledge. Where did these ideas come from, and how have they played out in story and myth over the past several hundred years?
Amongst the first tales of a “deal with the devil” is the German legend of Faust or Doctor Faustus, based on the historical Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480-1540), who wrote of the devil as his crony (Schwager). In the legend, the evil astrologer was dissatisfied with the limits of his knowledge and bargained with Mephistopheles for great worldly knowledge and power, at the cost of his soul. This cautionary tale soon became the inspiration for literature and legend, and was dramatized to great effect in Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus of 1604. Other interpretations in art and music include Goethe’s verse drama Faust (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832), Berlioz’ Cantata The Damnation of Faust (1846), and Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, dating from 1859.
Faust wanted everything. Some people had more modest desires. In the early eighteenth century, composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770) dreamed of a similar deal with the devil, during which the devil played a tune on the violin that the composer scrambled to record on paper when he awoke. He recounted the dream to French astronomer Jérôme Lalande, who recorded Tartini’s words in his memoire, Voyage d’un François en Italie.
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 have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me.
Here is a recording of this brilliant piece of music, played by Ray Chen and Amsterdam Sinfonietta.
One of the most famous legends of a musician selling his soul in exchange for exceptional proficiency on the violin was the whirlwind of rumour swirling around violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). Some said Paganini sold his own soul, some said his mother was the one who made the deal. There were also tales (completely unsubstantiated) that he had killed a woman and used her intestines for his strings and imprisoned her soul within his violin, and that you could hear her cries when he played. He could play with heartbreaking beauty, but also with a ferocity that caused one concert-goer to claim he had seen Satan himself on stage with the virtuoso! Whatever the source of the stories, it took four years after Paganini’s death in 1840 for the Church to agree to bury his body in consecrated ground.
This fabulous video is from the movie The Devil’s Violinist (2013), starring David Garrett, who did his own stunts. Yes, he’s really playing the violin. That’s his day job. Be sure to watch around the 3:00 mark. It’s worth it. I promise.
In the 20th century, we have the tale of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), a guitarist from Mississippi, who supposedly sold his soul (à la Paganini) for his brilliant technique. The story says that he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad at midnight, where he was met by a large black man (the devil). Beelzebub tuned Johnson’s guitar and played a few songs before giving it back, and with it, mastery of the instrument and the talent to create the blues style for which Johnson became famous. His untimely death at the age of 27 only helped solidify this myth. His story was retold in the 1986 movie Crossroads.
A more modern take on the devil and his violin is the fabulous song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band. This song has a rather special appeal for me, since my daughter dances to it at her Highland and step dancing classes. In this song, however, the devil offers the deal by way of a fiddle competition. If Johnny wins, he gets the devil’s golden violin. If he loses, the devil gets his soul. Fortunately for Johnny, he’s a better fiddler than Old Nick, and the devil loses this time around.
But where do these associations come from? Why is the devil so closely linked with music in general and the violin in particular? Part of the story starts with the idea that before his fall, Lucifer (yet another name for the devil) was God’s chief musician, who led the choir of angels in their praise of the Almighty. But music is not an instrument (pardon the pun) of evil, because worship was musical, and King David drove away the demons with his lyre. Still, the germs of the association are there.
A second stage of this association comes with the Medieval Church’s condemnation of dance as leading to sin. In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom said, “Where dance is found, there is the devil,” an association of wild frenzied dancing, pagan worship, and sins of the flesh. Music was pleasure, dancing was the abandonment of Christian restraint, and when stripped of sober words of praise, music appealed to people’s baser natures.
In the world of music theory, we also have the case of the tritone, the diabolus in musica – the Devil in Music. This interval of an augmented fourth (or diminished fifth – same thing) grates on the ear. Try it on the piano – C and F-sharp. It does not fit nicely into Medieval music theory; it is transitory, it needs to be resolved into something less dissonant. Even now, with the expanded harmonic palette we are accustomed to, the tritone jars. It’s that chord you get (usually played rather scratchily on violins) when the bad guy is about to strike, or when you’re wandering around the abandoned castle at midnight, waiting for the ghouls to appear. It was the sound of the devil then, as it is even today!
We now move to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when bowed instruments were finally introduced to Europe from Arabia. Until now, Western music was played on organ, harp, pipe and lyre. No, Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned, because there were no fiddles; he may have played the flute, though. The Eastern origin of these proto-violins brought with it an association of otherness that was associated with nefarious goings-on. The East was unknown, terra incognita, and it carried even then a perception of being sensual and uninhibited.
These rebecs and early fiddles were small and portable. They could be carried in a sack on your back and brought out at a moment’s notice to play. They suggested eroticism and vice and luxury, and they made a sinewy, suggestive sound. They soon became staple instruments at taverns and festivals and celebrations, sites of merry-making that did not sit well with the tenets of the Church.
From there, it is no great stretch to see the devil’s own hand stretched out across the fingerboard of a fiddle, his long fingers caressing the phallic length of a taut bow. Music, it seemed, could summon the devil, and the devil could summon music. And a trope was born.
Niccolò Paganini makes an offstage appearance in Through a Different Lens, albeit in his role as a composer and not as a violinist. In the tale, Mr. Darcy is an accomplished pianist who makes the acquaintance of a gentleman who is in possession of some of Paganini’s music. Their meeting and nascent friendship is one of Darcy’s first successes when he attempts to move more comfortably in society, and Lizzy finds herself rather liking the gentleman’s wife. We can imagine many evenings of friendship, good conversation, and excellent music, as the two couples continue their acquaintance long after the final page of their story is over.
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