For centuries classical music composers have been inspired by witches, ghosts, death and the devil. They’ve returned again and again to one instrument in particular to help conjure these spooky themes: the violin.
So what’s the link between Satan and one of the most popular instruments in the world? Music historian Robert Riggs actually devotes an entire chapter to the subject in his book “The Violin.”
Riggs finds the connection actually dates back to medieval times with the separation of sacred and secular music.
Church music was typical vocal, secular music employed instruments like drums and woodwinds, as well as precursors to the violin. And secular music was used for celebrating, and dancing, an act frowned upon by the early Church.
“The association with the Devil developed then because, the very conservative, strict conservative view that dancing was sinful or could lead immoral behavior,” writes Riggs. “And so that kind of rubbed off on the violin, since that was the music it was used for.”
Riggs quotes the early Church leader St. John Chrysostom who wrote, “Where dance is found, there is the Devil.”
Art of the day, and extending beyond the middle ages, took up that theme, depicting Death and the Devil as a skeleton or demon, often playing the violin. The instrument comes to embody earthly delights, a tool of the Devil to lure Christian men and women into sin.
Later, composers ran with the idea, explicitly Giuseppe Tartini’s Baroque Sonata, “the Devil’s Trill,” and Camille Saint Saens’ “Danse Macabre.”
Legend has it Tartini dreamt the Devil came into his room, picked up his violin and played better than anything he’d ever heard before. Upon awaking, Tartini attempts to write down what he had heard, ending up with the “Devil’s Trill” sonata.
The piece makes extensive use of trills, the rapid movement back and forth between two notes which gives the music an unstable, vibrating quality.
In Saint Saens 1874 tone poem “Danse Macabre” the solo violin depicts death fiddling away during a wild midnight dance. And Saint Saens uses a small trick to dramatically change the sound of the solo violin. The top string is tuned down slightly creating an extremely dissonant sound when played with the other strings, an interval called a tritone.
The tritone gained the nickname the diabolus in musica, the Devil in music, during the Middle Ages, something Saint Saens likely would have known.
The Devil personified as violinist reached a fever pitch during the years Nicolo Paganini was touring Europe to sell-out crowds in the 1830s.
Paganini developed violin techniques that pushed violin playing beyond what seemed previously possible: left-handed plucking, extensive use of octaves and harmonics.
“It’s not that virtuosity didn’t exist before, but I think Paganini was so overtly virtuosic,” said Providence-based violinist and teacher Jesse Holstein. “Some people had the theory that he was possessed or that he sold his soul to the devil, and there was this mystique around him with this technique.”
His notoriously difficult caprices for solo violin remain some of the trickiest technical music in the standard violin repertoire.
Musicologist Maiko Kawabata collected some of the monikers reviews used to describe Paganini in her article, Virtuosity, the Violin, the Devil ... What Really Made Paganini "Demonic"?
Those included sorcerer, wizard, magician, and Satan. In London, one reviewer wrote of Paganini, “without a doubt a demon in performance.”
Paganini may have done little to dissuade the notion. He dresses in black. He has a wild mane of hair. There are the rumors of womanizing and an affinity for gambling.
Kawataba writes that Paganini’s rise in the 1800s happens to coincide with the popularization of the Faust legend, thanks to the German playwright Goethe. In the story, doctor Faust makes a deal with the devil for superhuman abilities.
These compositions, the Devil’s Trill sonata, Danse Macabre, and Paganini’s caprices, employ different musical tools to convey this devilish mystique. They have a feverish quality complimented by effects like the trills and tritones. Most are musical flourishes atop relatively standard classical music, that make everything sound just a little off-kilter, said violinist Holstein.
“It’s not supposed to be centering. It’s supposed to excite and get people fired up and excited. It’s supposed to be unsettling in an entertaining way,” said Holstein. “And music was not supposed to be considered titillating.”
This is all a bit tame by modern standards, but Holstein says the association between the violin and the devil can be an entertaining, if not exactly spooky, entry point into classical music.