Book review: Devil’s trill


In the world of Baroque music, in which most pieces are given such wonderfully lucid titles as “Suite in D Major” or “Mass in B Minor,” Giuseppe Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill Sonata” stands out. The story is that, in a dream, the devil came to Tartini looking for a soul. Tartini, in the early stage of his career as a virtuoso violinist, challenged the devil to a violin duel and was stunned by the brilliance of the latter’s playing. Tartini awakened and tried his best to recreate the devil’s piece, but alas, what he managed to recollect was only a shadow of the piece he heard in his dream. Tartini said he would have destroyed his violin at once after that encounter, if only he knew of another way of supporting himself. (During his youth, he had tried his hand at many things and was unsuccessful in all but violin playing.)

Professional violinist and first-time novelist Gerald Elias used this famous story about Tartini as part of a historical back-story in his mystery novel Devil’s Trill. The full story posits the legendary existence of a 17th century midget named Matteo Cherubino, and nicknamed Il Piccolino due to his vertically challenged stature, who was the best violinist of his day. He was given a spectacular 3/4-sized violin by Antonio Stradivari (the only one he ever made) by a duchess with whom he was having an affair, just before her husband walked in and murdered them both. Since that time, the violin caused misfortune to all who have possessed it.

Fast forward to 1983, when the main story takes place, and we find ourselves amid the Grimsley competition for violinists under the age of 13. The winner gets to play a concerto with a hand-picked orchestra of top musicians from the world on the Piccolino Stradivarius in Carnegie Hall. Quite a prize for a pre-teen. However, when we look beneath the surface at the competitors, such as the winner Kamryn Vander, we find a cruel world of children denied a real childhood because they have to practice all the time, potentially causing serious harm to themselves in the process. (Injuries from excessive practicing among professional musicians are not merely common; they’re par for the course. And, shockingly, such injuries are happening more and more to kids before they even get to college.)

I shan’t say any more about the plot since it’s not hard to find plot summaries elsewhere, and reading the book is more fun anyway. But it’s a mystery, and at a sufficiently coarse resolution, all mystery novels are the same: all evidence points to one person, but someone else ended up committing the crime. Of course, if that were the end of the story, we wouldn’t bother reading them, but many of us still do.

What makes this book worth reading is the author’s understanding of the world of music, giving us a peek from an insider’s point of view. Aside from his troubling, but unsurprising, thoughts on corruption in the music industry, and particularly the recording industry and his disgust with music competitions (more on that below), he presents interesting thoughts about how one should play music. If I’m reading his message right, he doesn’t think we should consider the Tartini sonata to be a rare example of a piece of music with a story; every piece of music has a story, although possibly a less flashy one, that should inform our playing. Elias (through his main character, a grumpy, old, blind but uncannily astute violinist named Daniel Jacobus) tells his version of the story of the Mendelssohn violin concerto as being the first violin concerto (although not the first concerto for any instrument or even the first by Mendelssohn) to start with a violin entrance rather than first having an orchestral introduction to present the themes. (Caveat: I have no idea whether my musicology is correct; it’s just what I came up with off the top of my head quickly. Please let me know if I’m wrong!) So, the first performance would have given listeners a bit shock. Future performances should try to do the same thing, even though nowadays everyone knows the Mendelssohn violin concerto backward and forward; it’s probably the most popular violin concerto ever written. Elias also gives a few other examples in the book. I like that idea, but I have trouble coming up with anything concrete enough to inform my playing. But okay, that’s something I ought to think about more often and more thoroughly.

Oh yeah, music competitions. When I was younger, my mother sometimes accompanied kids for their competitions (she might still; I’m not sure), but she hated the competitions. They’re so ferocious and antithetical to the way music ought to played and studied: for the simple enjoyment of making wonderful sounds, perhaps together with friends. That’s music done right. The competitions, however, are all about winning. Students, parents, and teachers alike take them so seriously, and not winning is considered a terrible thing for some of these kids.

I was always baffled by this attitude. When I was in high school, I was extremely involved in math competitions. In fact, I stayed heavily involved after I graduated when I worked for Art of Problem Solving to help members of the younger generation hone their contest skills. And, for many years, I’ve been a relatively serious tournament chess player. Never in either of these environments have I found things to be unpleasant. I really wanted to win math contests when I went to them. Really, really, really wanted to. Yes, I’d be upset with myself when I didn’t. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter all that much. Far more important was that I got to meet a bunch of neat people who shared my passion for mathematics.

If anything, in chess the situation should be worse still. There’s no reason that mathematics, or music, should be a competitive activity. Both of those are best done cooperatively rather than competitively; to turn them into competitive endeavors is really a strange thing to do. Chess, on the other hand, is inherently competitive. Sometimes people ask me if I play chess competitively. They mean to ask if I play in tournaments, but the question is wrong. Indeed, how might one play chess non-competitively? It doesn’t make sense. Chess must be competitive. But here, again, I find no animosity among opponents, at least among amateurs such as myself. During the game, I want to win. After the game, I frequently analyze with my opponent and share friendly conversation, as two people with any common interest would be likely to do.

So, why are music competitions so much more vicious than math competitions and chess tournaments? If done well, they could be opportunities to create friendships among young musicians. The kids could play chamber music together and have a great time, even if there’s some competitive aspect involved. I see no reason for this to be impossible, or even particularly difficult to set up. I wish I had an answer.

I suspect that a large chunk of Elias’s motivation for writing this book was to expose music competitions for what they really are: cruel exploitation of young musicians that ends in so many precocious musicians leaving music behind forever once they head to college and are out of their parents’ jurisdiction.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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One Response to Book review: Devil’s trill

  1. Pingback: Book review: Scratch beginnings | Quasi-Coherent

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