Have you ever played a violin with the devil in the pale moonlight?
Today, I felt him in the room.
Felix has brought home a violin. His class are all learning it this term.
He declared after tea that he would give us a concert. We listened to the four-note exercise holding our breath and applauded roundly at the end.
I have no idea where it came from. But after Felix’s performance someone said “Can I have a try?” and it wasn’t Felix, and it wasn’t Maddie, and it wasn’t the dog(who does seem to have trouble with vowels).
Generously, Felix handed the little stringed sound box to me. And the moment my fingers grasped it, I swear, something happened.
I am a flautist. From an early age I have played a heavenly pipe, the silvery tones of which denote all that is graceful and goodly, everything clear and right and true. The nun of the music world.
All my life I have played it and those around me have been uplifted. I might as well have worn a great white frock. Or a wimple.
And now, here in my hands was an instrument I never realised before was the very antithesis of the flute’s flawless purity.
The rake of the orchestra.
Something must have happened to my face when I held it, because both children burst out laughing. My face became wicked and gleeful. I’m not sure I could have stopped it even if I had tried. The feeling of this light wood-box under my hands: it was like meeting one’s dark side for the first time.
I have never looked twice at a violin before.And the force of mid-life infatuation hit me square between the eyes.
It’s a thing of beauty, made according to lessons learned since the 16th century. Inlaid into the instrument is a depth of perception about different woods and how they behave. A description of its body reads like a witch’s spell: top of spruce, maple ribs and maple back; maple neck and fingerboard of ebony.
And it has an hourglass shape, arching its top and back.
The curves of a woman, the hard body of a man. This little thing is all things to all men, and it beckons like Lucifer himself. The little violin had an invisible label hanging from it inscribed: Play Me.
And while I was infatuated for the first time, let us remember that for centuries the devil has been claiming the violin as his own.
I have a feeling that if I trawled mediaeval woodcuts I might find him holding one: but the first concrete connection I can find is Signor Tartini.
We hear he was born in the republic of Venice and slap an Italian label on him: but Tartini was born in 1692 in what is known these days as Slovenia. His family wanted the fat life of a Franciscan friar for him, and taught him basic musical skills; he confounded them and headed off to study law at Padua.
He chose The Wrong Woman to love: his father disapproved of class and age differences and when Tartini married her anyway, a rather too involved cardinal, covetous of the girl, charged him with abduction.
With enemies in elevated places, the young man fled to St Francis of Assisi’s monastery to hide out.
And there, his hands encountered the siren vibration of the bow on the strings.
Three years afterwards,by this time completely absorbed by that little hourglass figure in his hands, he had an astonishing dream. he told astronomer Jerome Lalande about it years later, and Lalande wrote it down in his Voyage d’un François en Italie (1765 – 66).
He woke to find the Devil at hand: and immediately and without question, it seems, made a deal with him, proffering his soul for services rendered.
Tartini’s every wish was fulfilled, it seems: and it was not long before his beloved violin was handed to his diabolical companion to see how he fared with it.
Such brilliance! A tune which could only have come from the fires of hell filled the ether and Tartini woke, endeavouring feverishly to remember the notes as he snatched up his violin.
But all was in vain.
“The music which I at this time composed,” he writes. ” 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.”
The violin has seduced humans for centuries: once one has experienced its siren call, I wonder how possible it is to live without it?