Giuseppe Tartini

1692 1770

Giuseppe Tartini



Tartini was an Italian composer, violinist, teacher and theorist from the 18th century.

Tartini was born in 1692 in Pirano, Istria. He studied the humanities, rhetoric and music. He was also a priest of the Franciscan order. In 1708, Tartini left his hometown for good, though he never forgot the local folk music.

While pursuing his law degree at the Padua University, Tartini was nearly always dressed as a priest. In addition to his legal studies, he also possessed supreme skill in the art of fencing, which he practiced regularly.

After the death of his father, Tartini rebelled against the wishes of his family and began his serious pursuit of music. He also married a woman, Elisabetta Premazore, who was two years his elder and below his social standing.

Tartini then went to Assisi, at the convent of San Francesco. There he was cared for by Padre G.B. Torre, who allowed him to endlessly practice violin at no charge. It is also likely that Tartini studied composition with the organist of the basilica in Assisi, Padre Bohuslav Černohorský. The death of Padre Torre forced Tartini to earn his living as a violinist. By 1714, Tartini was performing in the orchestra of the Ancona opera house and later in the opera house orchestra in Fano and as concertmaster in the basilica of San Antonio (‘Il Santo’) in Padua. He also performed frequently in Venice and in Parma, Bologna, Camerino and Ferrara.

During these years, Tartini was also ­preoccupied with the theory of music. He discovered the ‘terzo suono’ (combination tone) while with the orchestra in Ancona. This acoustical phenomenon, which is the result of the simultaneous vibration of two tones with a precise mathematical ratio, was to become essential in his musical theories, composition and playing.  The combination tone establishes the harmonic basis for all intervals and chords. He believed this phenomenon to be a revelation pertinent to both music and nature, as it was the ‘true science of harmony’. He later wrote, in 1749, to Algarotti in a letter, ‘I am at home as much as I can be with Nature, and as little as possible with Art, having no other Art than the imitation of Nature.’

Tartini lived in Prague for three years, after having been accused of fathering the child of a Venetian innkeeper. While in Prague, he worked for the Kinsky family and had contact with Prince Lobkowitz and musicians such as Fux, Caldara and S.L. Weiss. Poor health and dreary weather led him to return to San Antonio in Padua in 1726, where he would spend the remainder of his life. Shortly after his return to Padua, Tartini’s first published works, the 12 concertos op. 1, were printed by Le Cène of Amsterdam.

In Padua, Tartini began an internationally famous violin school in 1727, which became known as ‘the school of the nations’ since so many students from other countries would come to his school.

Tartini was invited on numerous occasions to go to France, Germany and England, but he always declined, determined to stay in Padua.

Around this time, his left arm was partly paralysed as the result of a stroke, greatly affecting his playing. He began to play less and compose more. Eventually the vast majority of his efforts were spent on theorizing.

Tartini believed that music was abstractly constructed of sounds that could form a language so expressive it could move listeners’ affections. In 1950 his treatise,Trattato di musica secondo la vera scienza dell’armonia, was completed and published several years later, in 1754. The text was greatly criticized, as it was far too obscure. For his following treatise,De’ principi dell’armonia musicale contenuta nel diatonico genere (1764, pub. 1767), he chose to write in a simpler fashion. Tartini received support for his ideas from D’Alembert and J. Rousseau, however Tartini rejected Rousseau’s concept of harmony, as it was too similar to that of Rameau. Tartini’s final treatise,Dell’armonia musicale fondata sul cerchio, remained unpublished during his lifetime.

Tartini composed almost exclusively instrumental music, more specifically he composed primarily solo violin concertos with string orchestra and violin sonatas. He also composed several trio sonatas,sonate a quattro, and most rarely, a few vocal works designed for devotional purposes. Further, Tartini managed to avoid writing for the church and outright refused to write for the stage, he wrote, ‘I have been asked to write for the opera houses of Venice, but I always refused, knowing only too well that a human throat is not a violin fingerboard.’

In addition to his theories on harmony, Tartini believed that the human voice provided the basis for perfection, as it is also a natural phenomenon. Though he viewed instrumental music as artificial, he only wrote for this genre, in an attempt to recreate the sound of the human voice, and thus, perfection.

Tartini’s compositions are nearly impossible to date with precision, as he intentionally did not date them, allowing him to modify the pieces at will. The progression of his musical theories do allow for general time periods to be established, however. Tartini’s earliest music (until 1735) was, without a doubt, influenced byCorelli’s violin sonatas and concerti grossi. This influence is found both in the form of the music and the harmonic language. Evidence of the influence ofVivaldi’s concertos can also be found, particularly in the dominance the soloist’s role begins to display.

Tartini’s later compositions do not differ in form, but the musical language transforms quite dramatically, resulting in a more expressive style. This was influenced by his new musical theories which he believed would bring him closer to Nature. He also wrote a treatise explaining the differences in natural and artificial ornamentations. Very distinct in Tartini’s music is the lack of modulations, which he believed to be an artificial procedure, created by man. According to his theories, the folksong of his childhood home would also be a natural phenomenon. In much of his music these folksongs are introduced, most often in the slow movements. His first Violin Sonata in D minor shows his use of just a quotation of a folksong at the beginning of the slow movement while the slow movement of the Violin Concerto in A Major gives an example of a folksong being performed by the soloist. The violin sonatas often make use of folksong melodies for whole movements.

Tartini died on 26 February 1770 in Padua, leaving both his musical and theoretical manuscripts to his nephew Pietro. His greatest influence on future generations was from his teaching. He taught mastery of the bow, allowing students to perform in a cantabile manner, using the bow as a singer uses their breath. His influence on the compositions of his students was particularly noticeable in the slow movements.

Images courtesy of OAE and public domain