Giuseppe Tartini
Prominent Istrians
iuseppe Tartini was born on April 8, 1692 in Pirano, Istria (now Piran, Slovenia). He was the fourth child of Giovanni Antonio Tartini and Caterina Zangrando.
Sonata in G, "Il trillo del diavolo" (Devil's Trill)

violinist, composer and theorist

 born in Pirano

His mother was a noblewoman descended from one of the oldest families in Piran, whereas his father was from Florence but moved to Piran around 1685 and was a successful trader who later worked as a recording clerk in the salt trade.

Giuseppe's parents earnestly wanted their son to enter the Franciscan Order but they did not get their wish. The historians of the Minorite Cloister in Piran (Trani, Granich, Frasson and others) claim that Giuseppe's parents rented a room for him at that cloister for two years after 1700 A.D. and that he got the basics of his musical education there. However, instead of choosing the monastic life, Tartini went in 1709 to the University of Padua to matriculate the following year in jurisprudence, and having also studied theology, philosophy and literature. At the university, his interests gravitated towards music as well as fencing, and he took violin lessons from Giulio di Terni — who years later took some lessons from him.

Also in 1710, when Tartini was 18, he eloped with Elizabeth Premazone, a fellow student and the niece of cardinal Giorgio Cornaro, bishop of Padua. The couple kept their marriage a secret for three years but once discovered in 1713, the bishop ordered Tartini's arrest for abduction. He was forced to flee Padua, leaving his wife behind to be sent to a convent.

Tartini probably travelled to Rome, then was offered asylum at the Monastery of Assisi where Padre Boeme guided him through his musical education. He was a student there of the famous Czech musician Bohuslav Ceznohorsky. He also studied the art of fencing in which he later became a master. He went on to develop interests in other Renaissance pursuits as well, including mathematics and astronomy.

Two years later, in 1715, Tartini was found by some pilgrims from Padua, and they told him his wife had been pardoned by the cardinal. With the charge against him also dropped, he emerged from his seclusion to return to his wife and perfect his violin playing with Gasparo Visconti in Cremona.

There is a legend that when Giuseppe Tartini in 1712 (or 1716?) heard play the famed violinist Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768), who headed the Venetian Academy of Music that was founded by the King of Poland, he was so impressed by his bowing technique, and so dissatisfied with his own skill, that he fled the next day to Ancona and locked himself away in a room to practice. Another version of that event is that he was invited to enter a contest with Veracini at the Palace Pisani-Mocegino in Venice in 1716, but finding himself unready he went to Ancona for further study. Withdrawing there for several years of solitary study, he emerged with a longer bow, thicker strings, and a new control of cantabile playing. The fundamental principles of the bow and of bowing were, in any case, an important subject of his studies.

While in Ancona, he wrote his noted bowing study, L’Arte del Arco, was published in Naples during his lifetime, and his long letter on techniques of playing to Signora Maddelena Lombardini, who was considered an excellent violinist, is well known. About one-hundred and sixty years later, in 1877, Phipson wrote that the principles Tartini discovered and elucidated, the acoustic phenomenon of resultant tones, which he dubbed "terzo sono", served as the basis of every violin school in the world. By about 1720 he had returned to Venice.

Returning to Padua, on 16 April 1721 he was appointed "primo violino e capo di concerto" (first violinist and conductor of the orchestra) at the Church of St. Anthony, a position that allowed him the freedom to accept outside engagements. He held that position until 1765 and interrupted only for a short period which he was employed in Prague.

Tartini refused many flattering invitations to visit other countries but accepted Count Kinsky's invitation to attend the coronation of Charles VI in 1723. There, he was offered his first major appointment as conductor of Count Kinsky's private orchestra where he remained until 1726. He then returned again to Padua.

In 1726 (or 1728?) Tartini founded a violin school in Padua which he named "Scuola delle Nazioni". He took in students from all over Europe and many of the latter 18th century's most famous performers were included - Pasqualino, Carminati, Bini, Lombardini, Ferrari, Capuzzi, Girolamo Asconio Giustiniani, Graun, Naumann and Holzbogen.He must have given careful attention to each student: in 1737 he accepted only  nine students, although just four or five made him feel “like the most worried man on earth.” His method of playing an adagio was said to be inimitable and one of his favorite pupils and disciples, Pietro Nardini (1722-1793), became the finest adagio player in Italy, if not all Europe. He also became one of Tartini's closest friends. In Gaetano Pugnani, who studied first under Giovanni Somis, Tartini had the greatest of his pupils. Pugnani, who taught Viotti, united in himself the schools of Corelli and Tartini.

Between 1739 and 1741 Tartini visited many Italian cities including Naples and Rome where he composed, at Pope Clement XII's request, his single composition for the church, Miserere, for four, five, and eight voices, which was performed by the Sistine choir 1768.

Tartini had a scientific mind and accumulated a large, learned library, primarily of music, philosophy, religion and mathematics. Gradually he became more interested in the theory of harmony and acoustics, and from 1750 to the end of his life he published various treatises. He developed a style of bowing that is still practiced as a standard, and the influence of his compositions spread to France, England and Germany, but throughout the remaining twenty years of his life Tartini concentrated on his theory more than composition. Athough not the first to discover the so-called combination tone, third tone, or difference tone, which results when two tones forming a perfect consonance are sounded, his name has always been identified as the co-discoverer in 1714 because he made it the basis of a new system of harmony which is now referred to as "Tartini's tone," then laying down this system in his 1754 treatise, "Trattato di musica."

He said that it was in Ancona that he discovered the principles of the “third sound” or overtone produced when two notes of a chord are played in perfect tune. Another example of his research is that the diameters of violin strings in Stradivari’s day can be deduced from experiments made by Tartini in 1734. His figure of 63 pounds of total string tension has not been disputed, and it allows the diameters of the four strings to be calculated.

Tartini was a music theorist of a very practical bent. He is credited with the discovery of summation and difference tones, an acoustical phenomenon of particular utility on string instruments (intonation of double-stops can be judged by careful listening to the difference tone, the 'terzo suono'). He published his discoveries in several treatises on musical theory:

  • Trattato di Musica secondo la vera scienza dell'Armonia (Padua, 1754) - acoustical findings. His theoretical system incorporates the differential tone (terzo suono) which he claimed to have discovered in 1714. Also in the Trattato are discussions of melody, cadence types, dissonance, scale structure and harmonization, and meter.
  • De' principi dell'armonia musicale nel diatonico genere (1767), transcribed in 1771 after his death, but it must have originated earlier, since material from it was used by Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, n his Violinscule (1756).
  • Traite des agrements (published posthumously in Paris in 1771). 

Manuscript of the "Regole per suonare il violino".

Tartini's use of a secret code was the source of much speculation until deciphered by Minos Dounias, a Greek musicologist (1900-1962). His dissertation on Tartini's violin concertos (Die Violinkonzerte Giuseppe Tartinis, Wolfenbüttel, 1935) catalogued them according to tonality. The 'D' (Dounias) number does therefore not refer to the chronology of composition.

The reasons for Tartini's use of a secret code are speculative, but it is likely that he used it to hide secular ideas from works played in church. Until Dounias deciphered the code in 1932 (using the now standard method of analysis of letter frequency), many outlandish theories were forwarded about the mystical qualities of what was written. The rather prosaic quotations from libretti by Pietro Metastasio came as a disappointment to many! The code is a simple substitution-cipher:

Violin construction and musical treatises

Construction of violins, violas and cellos in the 18th century was different from what it is today. Most important was the difference in sound. Actually, there were two sound ideals: one was called "human voice" and another "silvery ". The first was considered the most appropriate for a concert violin, the second for an orchestral violin.

Bagatella's method is a proportional design, in which all violin parts assembled together in a perfect Harmony. He believed that things were not in harmony at HIS time, but they were in harmony in the past and he “discovered” the rules. Thus, to obtain a "human voice" the top of an instrument must have an even thickness. To obtain a "silvery voice" the top must be somewhat thicker in the middle. So when Bagatella was demanded to create a "human voice" he had to make the thickness of the top equal. When a "silvery voice" was demanded - the top had to be left thicker in the middle, and made thinner toward the ribs. In both cases both outline and thicknesses were changed proportionally.

Bagatella was 49 and a famous man in 1782 when he published his violin-making treatise,"Memoir, or Rules for the construction of violins - violas - violoncellos - double basses". He instructed on how to obtain a "silvery voice" or a "human voice". P. Lichtenthal, connoisseur of Mozart, mentioned two sound ideals of Mozart's time in his "Dictionary of Music", published in 1826, making it apparent that two kinds of violins existed during a few decades and were still remembered in the beginning of the 19th century, due in no small part to Tartini's association with Bagatella.

In 1740, Tartini reputedly sliced up his hand in a fencing match and had to quit playing the violin. Frustrated by this, he took up composing and attracted young protégés from all over Europe. His violin compositions and works are the repertoires of present-day violin virtuosi.

Il trillo del diavolo

One of Tartini's best known sonatas is Il trillo del diavolo (Vražji trilček, Devil's Trill or Devil's Sonata) which was published posthumously. In 1765, he allegedly told the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande that he dreamed that the devil appeared to him and asked to be his servant. At the end of their lessons Tartini handed the devil his violin to test his skil — the devil immediately began to play.

Tartini tells us:

"One night I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I desired: my new servant anticipated my every wish. I had the idea of giving him my violin to see if he might play me some pretty tunes, but imagine my astonishment when I heard a sonata so unusual and so beautiful performed with such mastery and intelligence, on a level I had never before conceived was possible. I was so overcome that I stopped breathing and awoke gasping. Immediately I seized my violin, hoping to recall some shred of what I had just heard - but in vain. The piece I then composed is without doubt my best, the Devil's Sonata, but it falls so far short of the one that stunned me that I would have smashed my violin and given up music forever if I could but possess it." 

The result is a wild bit of madness (keep in mind we're talking Baroque music here, not Black Sabbath) in three movements and it successful with his audience. The Devil's Sonata is so treacherous that it almost seems to spite those who might dare attempt it. Andrew Manze, dubbed "the Grapelli of the Baroque," in his interpretation of this composition rips through this obstacle course of trills and finger stretches at lightning speed; he saws away with such vigor that occasionally the violin runs actually sound more like a burning bluegrass fiddle or a Hendrix guitar riff than a Baroque sonata, only to drop back into controlled quietude once again. The textures and mood changes that Manze pulls out of Tartini's work are phenomenal for such a short piece (the entire work is only 18 minutes). It's hair-raising, thrilling stuff due not only to the content of the work but to its insane, perfectionist execution.

The date of the sonata is uncertain; Lalande wrote that the dream occurred in 1713, but music historians have found it difficult to place the sonata earlier than about 1745 on stylistic grounds. What we do know is that it was not published until almost thirty years after Tartini’s death, in 1798. The manuscript was said to have come from Pierre Baillot, who had studied violin in Rome for a number of years, returning to Paris in 1791. The annotation about the Devil at the foot of the bed was apparently not written in Tartini’s code, at least not in the published edition. The code was deciphered only in 1935; the annotations were shown to be mottos and fragments of secular poetry by Metastasio, Petrarch and Tasso, which might have been contrary to church strictures.

Officially retiring from St. Anthony's in 1765, the same year that Tartini purportedly told Lalande of his dream, Tartini remained active as a teacher until a mild stroke, which he suffered in 1768, incapacitated him even further. In 1769, his former student and friend Nardini returned to Padua and stayed with him in his final illness, Tartini’s wife Elizabetta having died the previous year. Antonio Vandini, a cellist, his colleague and friend in Padua, must have been with him as well and was most likely the original compiler of information about Tartini’s early life. Tartini died on February 26, 1770, the year of Beethoven's birth.

The city of Padua put on an elaborate funeral for him at the Basilica of St. Anthony, Cloister, a small 13th century church connected with the University of Law in Padua. The Church of Santa Caterina was rebuilt at the end of the 17th century following an aisleless plan. The façade dates back to the late classical period and is now being radically restored. It contains a Baroque high altar with statues which are ascribed to Giovanni Bonazza and an altarpiece by M. Bonaccorso, as well as the tomb of Tartini and his wife.

Tartini Square and Monument - Piran, Slovenia
Photographed by Marisa Ciceran, 30 July 2000

The town of Piran raised a monument to the memory of Giuseppe Tartini in 1896 (the 200th anniversary of his birth) on the main square which is also named after him.

Also named in his honor is the house in which Tartini was born and the theatre which is the central cultural institution in Piran. Tartini's house has been restored and is open to the public. In 1845 a memorial plaque was built into the facade in memory of the great maestro.

Tartini's House - Piran, Istria, Slovenia
Photographed by Marisa Ciceran, 30 July 2000

200th centenary medal

In 1952, fellow Istrian-born Luigi Dallapiccola, completed a composition based on themes by Tartini that he called Tartiniana I, and in 1956 it was followed by Tartiniana II.

The Tartini Family Tomb in Piran

At the 300th anniversary of Giuseppe Tartini's birth, the exact plan of old tombs was found in the archives of the Minorite Church of St. Francis in Piran. Among those tombs there was also one belonging to the Tartini family. The church has many tombs that have never been marked, so the exact place of the Tartini's tomb could never been located. Besides the tomb plans another document was discovered, confirming the discovery.

The friars chose the father of the famous violin player, Giovanni Antonio Tartini, as patron of the monastery. On 25 May 1699 he was given a church tomb that earlier belonged to the Petronio family. He received the tomb as a sign of gratitude for his close ties with the monastery. The family of Tartini was reminded several times to mark the tomb with their name, which never happened. On 12 March 1992 the tomb was opened and it was confirmed that the remains of the deceased are still in it.

Nine members of the Tartini family are buried in the tomb; there are no documents whether Giuseppe Tartini's father lies there, too. In March 1992 the monastery furnished the tomb with an inscription in Latin:

((This tomb was donated to the Tartini family by the Minorite Cloister in 1699 A.D.)

Tartini's heritage

Tartini stood along with Vivaldi and Veracini as one of the great composers, violinists and theorists of the 18th century.  His heritage is kept in a Piran museum and in the regional archives in Koper (Capodistria) and Izola (Isola).

Unlike most of his Italian contemporaries, Tartini wrote no operas. His compositions include more than 130 Concerti for violin, two Concerti for flute and two Cello concerti as well as over 170 Sonatas for violin, with or without continuo, some 50 Sonatas a Tre and 4 Sonatas a Quatre, his single composition for the church, Miserere, for four, five, and eight voices, and a small number of sacral vocal pieces written in the last year of his life. The romantic lyricism in his music was occasionally combined with Slavic folk elements which may reflect his stay in Prague (ed. or could it reflect the Slavic influence of early childhood in his native Istria?).

Only some 20 concerti and 50 sonatas were ever published so the remainder exist only in the forms of manuscripts. Apparently he was unconcerned with self-marketing, and many of his "programs" have only been reconstructed from private correspondence in the twentieth century.

Tartini's music is problematic to scholars and editors because Tartini never put dates on his manuscripts, and he also revised works that had been published or even finished years before, making it difficult to determine when a work was written, when it was revised and what the extent of those revisions were. Due to the lack of chronology in Tartini's manuscripts, the scholars Dounias and Brainard have attempted to divide Tartini's works into periods based entirely on the stylistic characteristics of the music. A catalogue of Tartini's concerti was drawn up by Doumias, numbered according to their keys. It was possible for some of the works published during Tartini's lifetime to be dated a little more accurately and Doumias has divided the remainder on style, sorting the concerti into three main periods: prior to 1735, 1735-1750 and after 1750.


  • Tartini family tomb -
  • Library of Congress Citations -
  • Selected works -
  • (no longer available)
  • (no longer available)
  • Images - Musica Classica,
  • Text and drawing (dream) -
  • Bagatella -

Photo sources:

  • Statue (Padua) -

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Created: Tuesday, October 19, 1999, Updated Saturday, April 02, 2016
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