Song of Evil

There are certain things that are associated with evil. I don’t mean things like death, famine, pestilence, etc. I mean more tangible things. Things that are less undeniably bad and yet still used again and again in popular culture to demonstrate evil. For example: out of all the colours in the rainbow, red and black are the most evil. It’s not the colours themselves that are evil – they just happen to complement evil very well. Maybe it is because red and black are the colours of blood and darkness, respectively. Whatever the reason, they are without a doubt the best evil coloursThink about all the bad guys you know from film and television. Darth Vader, Him from The Powerpuff Girls, Lord Xykon from Order of the Stick, and Jafar from Aladdin, to name a few, are all bad guys that wear red and/or black. By the same token, there are other things that are associated with evil. Fire is more evil than water, night is more evil than day, dragons are more evil than unicorns. And violins are more evil than any other instrument. To be fair, the last evil objects are less connected with evil and more with the devil. The question is, why? Well, that takes some explaining.

Music in itself seems to have more paranormal associations than any other form of art. You rarely seem to hear tales of someone going mad from reading a passage in a book, or becoming possessed by a paintbrush. No – if you were going to go mad, be possessed, or sell your soul, it just wasn’t good enough to do it for anything other than music. The glass harmonica (an instrument, invented by Benjamin Franklin, that made music through the use of pressing one’s fingers on rotating glass bowls) became nearly extinct after claims that those who played it or even listened to it being played would go mad, and Celtic mythology is full of stories about fairies kidnapping musicians and keeping them in the Fairy World forever. But even within this vast and strange world of music, the violin is associated with evil more than any other. Why this is is not easy to figure out (much because I don’t know entirely why myself), but what better way to learn than through a few stories?

Much of the violin’s associations with the devil may come from it being considered a very difficult instrument to play. Many years ago, it seems that when a person was very good at doing something generally thought to be hard to do, the first conclusion other people would jump to was not “they must practice all the time” or “they must have a great teacher”. Instead, it was “they must have sold their soul to the devil”. Perhaps not the most logical thing to assume, but jealousy can do strange things. Niccolo Paganini was an Italian violinist that lived during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and is frequently cited as being one of the greatest violinists of all time. His talent was so great that a rumour was started (probably by some of his peers), claiming he had received help from the  devil in developing his skill and probably sold his soul in return. Even today, historians think there might have been something unusual about Paganini. However, it is much more commonly assumed that he had some sort of physical abnormality (e.g. extra long fingers) that gave him an advantage over other violin players, or simply practised an enormous amount. Still, that didn’t stop the rumour from growing. By the time of Paganini’s death, the belief of his selling his soul to the devil had spread so much that he was even denied a Catholic funeral.

But Paganini was not the first violinist that had supposedly interacted with the devil. Just under a century before Paganini would even touch a violin, another famous Italian virtuoso was playing the instrument like there was no tomorrow. Giuseppe Tartini was a well-known and outstandingly skilled violinist, but he did not develop his own connection with the personification of evil until 1713. The story goes that one night Tartini had a dream in which the devil appeared to him and offered to be his servant. Tartini accepted, and the devil predicted and granted his every wish. Near the end of the dream, out of pure curiosity, Tartini gave his servant his own violin to play. Upon receiving the instrument, the devil began to play a song that was so fantastic, it literally took Tartini’s breath away. Once he had woken up, Tartini immediately set to work on composing the song on his violin. The result was the Devil’s Trill Sonata. It is without a doubt a great piece, and one that is notorious for its technical difficulty. Tartini knew that it was the best music he had ever written, but he was still not satisfied. He always believed that his song could not match that which he had heard in his dream. It frustrated him so much that he was quoted as saying “[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”.

There is one other story – a far more recent one than those two previous – about a musician and the devil. Although the musician in question plays the “fiddle”, many people agree this is much the same thing as a violin, and I think the story is perfectly relevant here. This tale is of the time “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. When the devil went down to Georgia, he was on the hunt for a soul. The fiddler of the story, a young man named Johnny, was an impressive musician to begin with. He had no need to sell his soul, at first – but the devil wasn’t about to give up that easily. So instead of offering him increased musicality in exchange for Johnny’s incorporeal essence, the devil challenged him to a fiddling duel. Being a fiddle-player himself, and clearly having had all the years since Tartini’s time to practice, the devil was not going to be easy to beat. However, if Johnny won then the devil would present him with a shiny fiddle made of solid gold. Whatever kind of use a solid gold fiddle would be, nobody knows, but Johnny wanted one nonetheless. And so the devil and Johnny began their duel. The former went first, playing a song that made the fiddle hiss and demons rise up from the ground. Then Johnny played, and by the time he was finished the devil knew he had been beaten. Apparently honest and fair despite his soul-hunting antics, the devil gave Johnny the golden fiddle and went on his way. Just as he was about to leave, Johnny told him he was welcome to come back to try again, but warned him that he was the best fiddler there had ever been. And really, who was there to argue?

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One Response to Song of Evil

  1. DBP says:

    Wonderfully written! I particularly enjoyed reading the little stories within this post, especially the one about Giuseppe Tartini. It was very much a “Ohhhh, so that’s the story behind that song” moment for me when you mentioned The Devil’s Trill. I can’t wait ’til the next post =)

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