“Beyond doubt, Tartini strove for the truest possible expression in violin playing, he wished to give his epoch the best possible example of style, in the broadest sense of the word.” ~ Leopold Auer.
In this second installment on Tartini I’ll be covering his formative years, Slavonic and folk music influences, career highlights, as well as his musical ethos, developments on bowing, Treatise on Ornaments and his teaching legacy. Plenty to write home about and to listen to!
Tartini’s principles in performing and teaching, like his principles in composing, were based on an experience of the humanism of art, its need for context and on his desire to be as close as possible to nature without artificiality.
According to Tartini good musical taste should be displayed in both composing music and performing it, as a product of human nature and should therefore be guided by one’s “sommo giudicio” (highest judgement).
I feel that the undisputed heavy weight champion of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven, who was also faithful to his life experiences in terms of musical expression shared this musical ideology with Tartini.
Tartini attached great importance to the ‘singing quality’ of the violin. In his ‘Regole per ben suonare il Violino’ (Rules for Playing the Violin Well), he differentiates two ways of playing: cantabile (singing style) and sonabile (resonant). According to Tartini the singing manner of playing cantabile required slurring (same bow for multiple notes) and coherence, as distinct from sonabile.
Tartini’s motto: “Strength without convulsiveness; flexibility without laxity.”
‘Theory of Affects’
In his aesthetic views Tartini belonged to a group of 18th century composers who were the trend setters of his day, namely, Francois Couperin, Johann Mattheson, Francesco Geminiani, CPE Bach, Leopold Mozart and Luigi Boccherini. Their collective views were incorporated into a doctrine known as the ‘theory of affects’, which can be traced back to ancient times.
Their ideology can be summed up by Geminiani, who believed that music was good if it expressed “movements of the soul” and bad if it “expressed nothing”.
Tartini certainly was a master of music with a descriptive force that could arouse emotional states in the listener. Truthfulness of expression was everything. According to his contemporaries, Tartini often drew inspiration from the poems of Petrarch and the romantic writings of Metastasio.
Tartini modestly put his verses into cipher, so that his feelings were expressed in the music alone. He wrote his mottoes in a cipher that he invented which remained a mystery to investigators for two hundred years, adding to the mystical aura that surrounded his life and work. Just over thirty years ago the Greek violinist and musicologist Minos Dounias (who cataloged his violin concertos according to tonality), cleverly decoded Tartini’s cipher.
Folk music and Slavonic influences
Tartini had a keen interest in Italian and Slavonic folk songs and dances, hence much of his music reflected their simple, lively tunes and enchanting rhythms.
There is a story that tells of how the impressionable composer once heard some Venetian Gondoliers singing a song with words by the 16th century Italian poet, Torquato Tasso. Tartini put down the song and allegedly used it in a movement of a solo violin sonata and wrote the Tasso text under the notes.
Violinist and scholar Peter Sheppard Skærved performing the so called ‘Aria del Tasso’:
Tartini dedicated considerable attention to folk songs in his Treatise on Music, written in 1750:
“Each nation has its own songs, many of which arose from old tradition, though many are created afresh in harmony with the prevailing spirit. As a rule they are extremely simple; one might even remark that the simpler and more natural they are, the better they are assimilated.”
In his youth Tartini listened to and absorbed the songs of Croats and Slovenes. The final movement of his violin concerto D. 115 is a fine example of his affection for Slavonic folk tunes.
Violin Concerto in A Minor, D.115 ‘A Lunardo Venier’ Presto with Nicola Beneditti and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a sweet rendition:
Born the fourth of six children to Florentine merchant, Giovanni Antonio Tartini and a girl from a family in Pirano dating back to the 15th century, Caterina Zangrando; little Giuseppe grew up with his siblings in Pirano, a small, pretty town on the Adriatic coast now part of Slovenia.
He was influenced by both Italian and Slavonic culture of the baroque period. One of his early musical influences may well have been attending the famous ‘Dei Virtuosi’ Academy in Pirano with his father. Giovanni actually intended for Giuseppe to become a priest and prepared him for an ecclesiastical career. However, after his initial education Tartini rebelled against his father and moved to Padua in 1708 (which at that time was part of the Republic of Venice) and a year later he enrolled to study law in Padua’s ancient university, (said to have been founded in 1222).
It seems that Tartini quickly began to out-perform his first music teacher, Julio di Terni, and developed mastery of the violin largely through his own efforts and the study of other prominent violinists of his time. He studied Corelli and listened attentively to the likes of Veracini, and divided his time between law and music studies as well as a penchant for fencing.
Love and marriage
According to some sources Tartini developed a passion for the cardinal’s niece, Elisabetta Premazone, and married her secretly in 1710. This did not go down well with her influential family and Tartini fled to Assisi, having also incurred the wrath of his own family, who cut off all financial support. He spent two years studying assiduously in a monastery and worked on perfecting his musical skills, and where he created his early compositions (and most likely his famous Devil’s Trill Sonata).
There are also claims that whilst in seclusion in Assisi Tartini took musical instruction from Bohuslav Cernohorsky (1684 – 1743 nicknamed Padre Boemo), a noted Czech composer, theorist and head of the 18th century Czech school of composition, who had also tutored Christoph Willibald Gluck.
Prague and Padua
Tartini returned to Padua in 1721 as a mature artist and versatile musician. He spent most of his life there, but also performed and taught in Venice, as well as undertaking visits to Milan, Bologna, Livorno, Palermo and Naples. By this time he was well known throughout Europe and was invited to perform in Prague by an influential member of the Hapsburg dynasty and a big supporter of the arts, Count Kinsky.
After the coronation of Emperor Charles VI they worked as chamber musicians in Count Kinsky’s chapel until 1726. Tartini also played in Prague’s musical academies.
The success of his countrymen Scarlatti and Geminiani in foreign courts may have hastened his decision to go to Prague, but because of his early exposure to Slavonic folk tunes the trip most likely excited him and represented an opportunity to further study Slavic music.
He travelled with his friend and first cellist at Padua, Antonio Vandini. The role of cello accompaniment was quite important in the absence of a harpsichord or keyboard instrument. Tartini and Vandini were close friends for over fifty years, and Tartini wrote several cello concertos for him.
Here’s my favourite of them, in D major, performed by Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich:
After he returned to Padua in 1726 he rarely left, and besides his performances in Venice his last major concert tour was a trip to Rome in 1740 after an invitation from the cardinal to play in the presence of Pope Clement XII.
Performer and teacher
Tartini founded the Paduan Violin School a year or so after his return from Prague, which he directed for more than forty years. Violinists from all over the world came to learn from Tartini and perfect their craft, and he earned the nickname “maestro delle nazione” (teacher of nations). Antonio Capri, who was his biographer states that over seventy of his pupils became violinists of note in the history of violin playing.
“One cannot speak of music at Padua without mentioning the famous Giuseppe tartini, who has long been the first violin of Europe. His modesty, moral standards and considerateness evoke as much respect as his talent; in Italy he is referred to as ‘il Maestro delle Nazioni’ both in regard to the violin and to his compositions… No one has impressed me more with his inspiration and the fire of his compositions than Tartini. ~ Jérôme Lalande
Tartini’s methods were also passed on by his students, namely Pietro Nardini, of whom Leopold Mozart said, “I have heard the famous Nardini… It is impossible to hear anything of greater beauty, purity, evenness of tone and melodiousness. And with all of this he has nothing heavy in his playing.” Other students worthy of mention were Maddalena Lombardini, Domenico Ferrari, Pierre Lahoussaye, Filippo Manfredi and Domenico Dall’Oglio.
From reading about his legacy I have assumed that he was equally as good at teaching as he was at performing and composing! His respected writings qualified him as the eminent music scholar of 18th century Italian violin music; so you could say he had many strings to his bow!
Development of bowing techniques
“The bow should be held firmly between the thumb and forefinger and lightly by the other three fingers, in order to produce a strong, sustained tone. To increase the tone, press harder on the bow with the fingers and also press down the strings more firmly with the fingers of the other hand.” ~ Giuseppe Tartini
The authors of Methods of the Paris Conservatoire (Paris 1802), Baillot, Rode and Kreutzer wrote that under Tartini’s bow the violin becomes a “harmonious, sweet instrument, full of grace.”
He attached great importance to the “correct distribution of the bow.” A story from a contemporary relates that sometimes Tartini used two bows while teaching: one of them had its stick divided into four parts, and the other into three.
Tartini also fluted the wood of the bow. It’s also easy to forget that during Tartini’s musical era the bow was held not at the heel as it is today, but gripped at a certain distance from it. Tartini discovered that in order to enrich the tone it was necessary to lengthen the bow which increased its flexibility and enabled a broader range of expression in bowing technique. He developed a broader palette of bow strokes than Corelli (who used mostly detache and legato), by also using both staccato and bouncing strokes.
It’s quite a skill to amplify the sound without compromising the quality of the note, so bowing technique is crucial in applying the dynamics of a piece. Crescendo’s aren’t my Forte!!!
Minos Dounias observed that Tartini’s slurring of strokes coincides with that of musical phrases.
L’Arte del Arco (The Art of Bowing)
To assist his teaching methods Tartini wrote The Art of Bowing which consists of fifty variations on a Gavotte from Corelli’s Violin Sonata in F Major, (Opus 6, No. 10). Despite its title the variations also challenge left hand activity and require perfect coordination of movement from both hands!
It highlights his exhaustive knowledge of the many modes of expression of the violin and serves as a kind of compendium of violin technique in the 18th century. The work isn’t just a manual in technical ability but combines a certain artistry that frees it from the usual monotony of studies and exercises.
The Art of Bowing was adopted by many prominent 18th and 19th century violinists (such as Joseph Szigeti and Fritz Kreisler) who made arrangements for their own performance.
A gorgeous performance by Oscar Shumsky of Kreisler’s shortened arrangement of Tartini’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli:
Treatise on Ornaments
Tartini was against ornamentation/embellishment as a purely decorative device unconnected with the inner nature of the music itself. The choice of ornaments and the way they were played had to be underpinned by an understanding of the music and performed to reflect the feeling, idea or, as was the basis for his philosophy, the affect that it expressed.
Tartini’s writings pertaining to technical and aesthetic performance started out as instruction manuals for his pupils that he refined over the years. His Treatise on Ornaments was thought to have been written between 1735 and 1750 when he was highly active both as a performer and teacher.
It contains his ideas on different kinds of grace notes, trills, tremolos and mordents and various ways of using them. Regarding mastering the trill at different speeds he wrote:
“The same shake will not serve with equal propriety for a slow movement as for a quick one.”
He suggests starting the trill slowly and gradually making it faster.
Tartini’s art was progressive, meaningful, and full of humanity. It’s no surprise then that through generations of violinists many of his principles in methods of teaching are used to this day, and his best compositions still thrive in modern repertoire.
I’ll leave you to listen to a small selection from his massive output of violin concertos, sonatas, trios etc. Happy listening!
Violin Sonata in G minor Op. 1 No. 10 ‘Didone Abbandonata’ David Oistrakh and Frida Bauer:
My favourite violin concerto in D minor ‘Ombra diletta…’ D. 44 Performed by Wolfgang Schneiderhan and the Festival Strings Lucerne conducted by Rudolf Baumgartner:
Violin Concerto D. 22 Concerto Bucolico for violin, strings & b.c. by L’Arte dell’Arco:
Violin Concerto in A Major, D. 96, Accademia Bizantina, on period instruments:
Violin Concerto in G Major, D. 82 Pierre Amoyal, Claudio Scimone & I Solisti Veneti:
Trio Sonata in F Major for 2 Violins and Harpsichord, David and Igor Oistrakh with Hans Pischner:
Sonata ‘Staggion bella’ for Violin & basso continuo in B flat major, Op.Posth (Brainnard Bb.3):
Violin Sonata No. 12 Op. 2 in G Major, vintage recording of Joseph Szigeti:
Trio Sonata in D major, B. D2 (Op.3 No.6) La Magnifica Comunità :
Violin Concerto in E minor, D. 55 by the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble & Nils-Erik Sparf:
Violin Concerto in G minor, D. 85 by the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble & Nils-Erik Sparf:
Tartini Violin Concertos D70, 42, 109, 123, 54, 45, 115, 13, 125, 110:
Tartini Solo Violin Music performed sympathetically and soulfully by Andrew Manze:
“Tartini has always been to me a source of achievements with the violin.” ~ Joseph Szigeti