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 hisΒ Voyage d’un FranΓ§ois en ItalieΒ (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?


60 thoughts on “Violinguistic

    1. I enjoy its sound, but have never been attracted to the idea of playing it. I’m more of a freewheeling guitar-type myself πŸ˜‰

      I suspect that has something to do with the extraordinary sounds most beginners can coax from the violin at first touch, something like the souls of the dammed, screaming their misery

  1. When I subject the household to gratuitous violins, the Devil would flee with hands over ears. It doesn’t stop me from loving the instrument dearly, even though (having had my first lesson at an advanced age) I play so badly. Recorder is what I’m better at.
    You’ll find it such a thrill if you progress, though, and the muscle memory starts telling you where to get the right notes. It is a complete impossibility – if you think about it – without frets. I mean, to just KNOW the right part of the bridge, considering that the higher one goes the less gap between notes. And yet, even I learnt to do it.

    1. Apparently he looked like Mephistopheles when he played, WP! There’s something earthy and full of possibility about the violin. Immediately I just knew it was the opposite of the kind of orchestration the heavenly choirs would opt for.

  2. My preference for “the rake of the orchestra” has always been that he don his “country cousin” garb and common fiddle identity; thus, instantly becoming the inducer of grins, toe-tapping or outright foot-stomping ’round the dance floor.

    I don’t know Felix’s age, but thought he might enjoy this illustration of that identity:

  3. Such a wickedly wonderful post, Kate, with a side of thanks to Pseu for the link.

    Have you seen the movie The Red Violin? You really must if you haven’t. It follows the life of a red violin through several centuries and countries and is quite a wonderful movie.

  4. I found this posting enjoyable on several levels–the history, the up-close photograph of the violin, the story of the “Devil’s Trill,” and the description of your sudden and spontaneous infatuation with the “rake of the orchestra.” (I’ve never heard that expression before.)

    I don’t know how you found my blog, Kate, but I’m so happy you did because now I’ve discovered yours. What a gift for this Saturday morning.

    I’ve never heard the “Devil’s Trill” but I read about the playing of it in a novel. If you like mysteries, you, as a musician, might like the writer Gerald Elias. He’s written “Dance Macabre,” “Devil’s Trill,” and “Death and the Maiden.”

    1. Dee, I came to visit you after reading your comments on Penny’s blog. thanks for such a thought provoking site: what a journey you are weaving through life! I’ll put Elias on my list to read at Christmas. He sounds perfect.

  5. The voice of the devil is the sound that delicate instrument makes when played by a beginner. I know it all too well, as my father owned a violin and we five siblings all had a few lessons with it, with achieving more than “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” if that. Perhaps that’s why I don’t care much for classical violin today, although a well-played fiddle with a bluegrass band is pure joy.

    1. Ah, but Mendelssohn’s violin concerto would surely change your mind, PiedType! However I can sympathise: my father learnt to play the violin later in life, and as he picked up the violin to practise the dog would get up and slope out. Bluegrass is cool πŸ™‚

  6. Ah now, better watch out Kate, you have felt the seduction call… who knows what will happen next? πŸ˜‰ … Wow, what a description you gave…. the shaped wood, the siren call, the seductive tones ..says it all.. πŸ™‚ Great post….. xPenx

  7. The violin is a beautiful instrument in every sense of the word but I would throw it over for a well-played flute any old day. Still, I do get an itch to try my hand at it (not that easy for a confirmed lefthander) – my dad played when he was younger… his dad played flute…

  8. I see Sunday family concerts in the forest…

    I have my grandfather’s violin, but it has remained firmly in the cupboard for 15 years – I wouldn’t even attempt to learn how to play it, so you and Felix have my utmost admiration.

  9. πŸ™‚ Loved this one, Kate.

    I used to like tightening the horsehair on the bow before scraping out an excruciating version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and unrecognisable minor classics. The violin itself was very nice though. My mother thought it was best admired in silence.

    But honestly, don’t let me put you off…. ! πŸ˜€

  10. I love the violin – if I take up a mid-life instrument, that’s what I will try. There is something bewitching in that beautiful whine…

  11. Great opening line Kate – haha. I am not too keen on the violin as my sister learned the instrument in primary school and the screetchy sound is still with me. I do like it when it is played beautifully though, especially gypsy music and the like.

    1. Do you know, Earlybird, I am beginning to think the early stages are only bearable if conducted my toddlers of whom one can forgive anything because they are so cute. I’m sure that’s how the Suzuki method does it.

  12. I recall the one time I picked up a violin. After experimenting by drawing the stick bit over the strings, I suddenly launched into a ten-fifteen second burst of complicated music. I stopped in shock, and laid the violin down. I had some pretty impressive psychic powers at the time, and I was sure I was ‘channelling’ a violinist. By chance someone had taped it, and when I played it to people they accused me of lying. Sadly the tape was ruined when it got chewed up in a tape player. Weird shit – as they say – particulaly because I have a musical talent that is measured in the negative. P.S I used to love the flute pieces in those early seventies soul records. Always the best part of the song.

    1. Good gracious, Tooty! Amazing story, and one which should definitely be written down for posterity.
      Flute, schmoot. Everyone loves it, it’s the Julie Andrews of the instrument world. I am experiencing silvertone fatigue. If I am asked to play “Annie’s Song” one more time I shall explode. Quite literally πŸ˜€

  13. Ah, the entrancingly diabolical violin! My very favorite instrument, followed closely by the cello. I’ve always been intrigued by the violin’s association with the Devil – it is certainly seductive and has a dark side to its personality/voice. And no other instrument can sob and tear your heart out like a violin. I’m off to dig up my favorite concertos…

  14. But in the hands of a trained violinist, the instrument becomes a truly beautiful singer.
    I wish I had started earlier, but mid life limitations trapped me. But I can play a simple tune and make it sound tolerable!
    Nice post Kate. I will talk to you about the violin if you wish. Its age reaches back to 1813, and it was made in Vienna by a violin maker called Johannes Carolus Leeb.

  15. When I was at primary school, a teacher came in and asked if anyone would like to learn to play the violin. My hand shot up, amongst many others. I wasn’t chosen. My ten year old self never got over the rejection. I ADORE the violin.

  16. What a great post! If you ever get the chance, sit inside an orchestra, close your eyes and literally let go of what ails you as the muscians play. I was lucky enough to play with the orchestra a few times (because I used to play the clarinet) and let me tell you Kate – gosh, it still sends chills through me. The painfully exquisite sound that comes from the violins, cellos and bass had me almost drop my clarinet a few times and once I just had to cry. Anyone who says the violin isn’t intoxicating must not have a soul.

  17. What a delightful post! As a violin player for the past 20 years, you had me seduced from the start! It really does take you by surprise, doesn’t it? I always remember plucking the little wooden egg timer with strings out of its resin smelling box for the first time on that cloudy afternoon of November 15th 1991! My teacher gave each of the strings a person’s name so we’d remember the initials. Then it was off to the chemist, dutifully, to buy a new bath sponge to secure under the instrument with an elastic band for a shoulder rest (funny how I’ve never noticed any of those being used in any of the big orchestras! πŸ˜€ ).

    I don’t know what it is about the violin, but I think it can make you laugh and cry, it can turn up almost anywhere and is welcome in almost any genre of music, and, though I loathe to say it, I suppose it’s a bit of a “Marmite” instrument. While some hate it, I most definitely love it. It can be fiendish to play sometimes, but if you get it right it can be a waterfall of pleasure. While Pagannini’s ferocious talent was thought to have only been possible if he’d had dodgy dealings with the devil, it’s not all bad. It can be the height of romance and passion, or indeed purity. Forgive my bias but I do so love those plucky little egg-timers!

    Does Felix enjoy it? I wish him every luck with it and hope it will bring him a lot of happiness. And should you pursue it, I wish the same for you, too. πŸ™‚

    1. Heather, Felix is having a lovely time with it- how brilliant that you have been in love with it for so long.And you’re right about its good side. I am a Mendelssohn fan- I’ll say no more.

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