Musicians who sold their soul : Niccolo Paganini, Giuseppe Tartini and Robert Johnson.

28 May

Sources : listverse.com., guitarramagazine.com., wikipedia.com.

NICCOLO  PAGANINI

Nicolo Paganini is one of the greatest violin virtuosos to have ever lived. He learned to play the mandolin at 5 and was composing by 7. He started playing publicly at 12 but by 16 he had a breakdown and disappeared into alcoholism. He sobered up and by 22 was the first music superstar. Paganini was capable of playing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, a feat that is nearly impossible even by today’s standards. He composed 24 Caprices at 23 and for years no other violinist was capable of playing much of his music. His playing of tender passages is said to have brought audiences to tears. One of his famous pieces was called Le Streghe which translates to Witches’ Dance. Audiences believed Paganini made a pact with the devil to perform supernatural displays of technique. Some patrons even claimed to see the devil helping him during his performances. It is because he was denied the Last Rites in the Church and his widely rumored association with the devil, that his body was denied a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years, and an appeal to the Pope, before the body was allowed to be transported to Genoa, but was still not buried. His remains were finally put to rest in 1876 in a cemetery in Parma.

NICCOLO  PAGANINI : POSSESSED  OR  BLESSED ?

Niccolo Paganini, who is considered the greatest violin virtuoso of all time, was probably one of the most erratic figures of all time. Through his numerous performances all over Europe, he enthralled and inspired every audience, including musicians of his era.

Franz Schubert was mystified by him, Rossini was appalled by him, and Meyerbeer followed him from one concert to another not being able to get enough of his playing. Berlioz has described Paganini as “one of those artists of whom it must be said: ‘They are because they are and not because others were before them’.” In Paris, Liszt came under Paganini’s spell and was so stimulated by his fabulous technical virtuosity, determined to accomplish similar miracles with the piano, and pushed his technique to the highest limits.

Paganini was considered a genius, a god, a devil worshiper, anything but that of reality. There was a rumor, for instance, that when Niccolo was only six, his mother made a pact with the Devil and is said to have traded his soul for a career as the greatest violinist in the world.

Paganini was a legend. In fact, he was so amazing no audience could succumb to any type of disturbance during the trance he created through his musical renditions. After borrowing a Guarnerius violin for a single concert, the lender begged him to keep it for fear of coming under Paganini’s supernatural powers. He also won a Stradivarius violin in a similar manner by playing a technical piece by sight which was insisted that nobody could perform even after preparation.

Besides his superb technical ability, his cadaverous appearance led to myths of all sorts. He was tall and thin, had a long nose, a pale and long-drawn face with hollow cheeks, thin lips that seemed to curl into a sardonic smile, and piercing eyes like flaming coals. The rumor was spread that he was the son of the Devil. It was difficult to think much otherwise as Paganini dressed in black, played weaving and flailing, with skinny fingers cavorting over the strings, and contorted shoulders giving him the appearance of a giant flapping bat. Paganini’s every movement and every tone emanating from his violin seemed to support the 300-year-old myth that the violin was the “Devil’s consort” and that the violinist himself was the Devil. Some people, when in his presence, would actually make the sign of the cross to rid themselves of what they believed were his evil powers. He was once forced to publish letters from his mother to prove he had human parents.

Whenever and wherever he played, he aroused tenor and awe in his audiences. There was the rumor that a satanic figure, a double of Paganini, always appeared in the audience in sombre black with the same long black locks, burning eyes, and sardonic smile. Or else the figure appeared on the stage at Paganini’s side dressed in a red cloak and pantaloons, with horns, hooves, and a tail to guide Paganini’s bow arm through a performance. It was believed that this figure raised a thunderstorm, during a concert and conducted lightening to the free end of the bow, and at another performance he actually took possession of Paganini’s body. In spite of his appearance and the suspicions, however, he was worshiped wherever he went.

All parts of Europe were delighted with his music and women were spellbound at the sound of his hypnotic melodies. There was another rumor that he was the greatest womanizer of all time and that he killed a woman, imprisoned her soul in his violin, and used parts of her intestines as an eternal source of gut for his strings. The unearthly screams of women were sometimes heard coming from his violin as he played on stage.

Paganini was born of a poor family in 1782 at Genoa and showed a natural talent at a very early age. His father wanted his son to be a genius and did everything in his power to make that come true. He stood by him consistently when he practiced disciplining him severely with a rod that was seldom spared. His father was quite successful in his persistence for at the age of eight, he played a Pie yel Concerto in a Genoa church. He so enthralled the audience, that his playing became in great demand for local social gatherings. His teachers at that time were Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa. When he turned nine, he made an official debut in a Genoa concert auditorium playing his own composition, La Carmagnole which is a theme and variations. By age thirteen, he was known throughout the town as the “wonderchild.”

He continued with his studies in Leghorn with Ferdinando Paer and in Parma with Alessandro Rolla, which began his first extended concert tour. He succeeded rapidly in the cities of Lombardy playing many of his own electrifying compositions.

At the age of seventeen, he was on his own. He no longer needed financial assistance from his father and broke away assured of his talent. Freed for the first time of his father’s strictness, he gave in to his two passions – women and gambling — to which he was thenceforth to be addicted.

At the turn of the century, he disappeared from the public eye. It is generally believed that he fell in love with a Guscan noble lady and lived with her at her chateau. At this time, he abandoned the violin temporarily because of his mistress’ wishes and concentrated his virtuoso and creative gifts on the guitar. He also composed several pieces and chamber works for the guitar. But, after three years, he returned to his native city to study, play, and compose at full intensity.

The most amazing stories were heard about his performances. The most famous is of the concert in Leghorn. When a string of his violin snapped in an intricate passage, the audience began expressing derision. But when Paganini continued to play the piece on three strings instead of four, the derision turned to wonder and awe. From then on Paganini would not hesitate to use this devise on purpose to further entrance his audience. Often he would use worn strings so that he could complete his performance on three or even two strings when they snapped. Later he got the idea to write entire pieces for a single string, such as the Fantasia on the G String.

By 1813, Paganini became the greatest violinist of his day and the most worshiped. He spent the next decade and a half performing numerous concerts throughout Italy. His health, however, was turning bad which limited his touring voyages to his own country. When he finally left his country to perform in other parts of Europe, the concert halls were filled immediately and crowds rushed to see for themselves the creature that was so talked about. In 1828, he was in Vienna where he hypnotized his audience. Everyone was talking about him. Snacks and billiard shots were named after him.

After Vienna, he traveled extensively throughout Germany and in 1831, he arrived in Paris, his ultimate goal. In Paris, there was a study made of him because his unusual appearance created an abnormal “presence” about him. Up until then there was no challenge as to the idea that he was possessed by the devil or was some sort of god himself. Through this study, however, it was found that his physical characteristics were linked to his mental abilities; the same qualities which characterize a genius.

In his tour to England and Scotland, Paganini made the largest sum of money that any performing artist had earned up to that time in a single trip.

He returned to Italy and purchased an estate near Parma where he made several concert appearances despite his suffering from poor health. He lost some of his fortune in a gambling house named after him, thus making him restless and weary. He started coughing and eventually lost his voice completely in 1838. He went to Nice for a rest cure – but neither rested nor was cured. He spent his last hours improvising feverishly on his violin, defying his rapidly waning strength. Finally, he died on May 27, 1840.

For five years the Church, disturbed as to his orthodoxy, refused his body interment in consecrated ground, and so it was laid to rest in a village graveyard on his own estate. The people in nearby towns use to say that every night they heard the sounds of a ghostly violin emanating from that coffin. The legend of Paganini’s life lasted until the very end.

 

GIUSEPPE  TARTINI

Tartini was an Italian composer and violinist. He was one of the most instrumental musical composers having written over 400 works. Unlike most of his contemporaries he wrote no church music or operas, he focused most of his work on violin concerti and sonatas. His most infamous piece is called the Devil’s Trill Sonata. The story behind “Devil’s Trill” starts with a dream. Tartini 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 skill—the devil immediately began to play with such virtuosity that Tartini felt his breath taken away. When the composer awoke he immediately jotted down the sonata, desperately trying to recapture what he had heard in the dream. Despite the sonata being successful with his audiences, Tartini lamented that the piece was still far from what he had heard in his dream. What he had written was, in his own words: “so inferior to what I had heard, that if I could have subsisted on other means, I would have broken my violin and abandoned music forever.”

The Violin Sonata in G minor, more famously known as the Devil’s Trill Sonata is a famous work for solo violin (with figured bass accompaniment) by Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), famous for being extremely technically demanding, even today.

Violin Sonata in G minor
Larghetto affettuoso
Allegro moderato
Andante
Allegro assai-Andante-Allegro assai

The story behind “Devil’s Trill” starts with a dream. Tartini 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 skill—the devil immediately began to play with such virtuosity that Tartini felt his breath taken away. The complete story is told by Tartini himself in Lalande’s Voyage d’un François en Italie (1765 – 66):

“One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and – I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the “Devil’s Trill”, but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that 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.”

 

ROBERT  JOHNSON

Robert Johnson was a great American Blues musician. Ranked 5th out of 100 on Rolling Stones list as the greatest guitarists of all time. The legend goes that he wanted to be great at guitar and was instructed to head to a crossroads. There he met the devil who tuned his guitar, giving him mastery over the instrument. Johnson did little to dispel the rumors, even encouraging them by alluding to the fact that he had, indeed, made a deal with the prince of darkness. He produced 6 records before his death at age 27. Johnson’s death is controversial as the most common claim is he was caught flirting with a married women and she offered him some whiskey which was believed to be poisoned by her husband. He was buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which is still under debate.

According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was “instructed” to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The “Devil” played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was in effect, a deal with the Devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.

This legend was developed over time, and has been chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Edward Komara and Elijah Wald, who sees the legend as largely dating from Johnson’s rediscovery by white fans more than two decades after his death. Son House once told the story to Pete Welding as an explanation of Johnson’s astonishingly rapid mastery of the guitar. Welding reported it as a serious belief in a widely read article in Down Beat in 1966. Other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House and there were fully two years between House’s observation of Johnson as first a novice and then a master.

Further details were absorbed from the imaginative retellings by Greil Marcus and Robert Palmer. Most significantly, the detail was added that Johnson received his gift from a large black man at a crossroads. There is dispute as to how and when the crossroads detail was attached to the Robert Johnson story. All the published evidence, including a full chapter on the subject in the biography Crossroads by Tom Graves, suggests an origin in the story of Blues musician Tommy Johnson. This story was collected from his musical associate Ishman Bracey and his elder brother Ledell in the 1960s. One version of Ledell Johnson’s account was published in David Evans’s 1971 biography of Tommy,and was repeated in print in 1982 alongside Son House’s story in the widely read Searching for Robert Johnson.

In another version, Ledell placed the meeting not at a crossroads but in a graveyard. This resembles the story told to Steve LaVere that Ike Zimmerman of Hazelhurst, Mississippi learned to play the guitar at midnight while sitting on tombstones. Zimmerman is believed to have influenced the playing of the young Robert Johnson. Recent research by blues scholar Bruce Conforth uncovered Ike Zimmerman’s daughter and the story becomes clearer. Johnson and Zimmerman did practice in a graveyard at night because it was quiet and no one would disturb them, but it was not the Hazlehurst cemetery as had been believed. Johnson spent about a year living with and learning from Zimmerman, who ultimately accompanied Johnson back to the Delta to look after him. Conforth’s article in Living Blues magazine goes into much greater detail. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be “The Crossroads” at Clarksdale and in Memphis.

Most musicians who knew Johnson well, such as Johnny Shines, never heard him claim that he had sold his soul to the Devil. Different accounts give contradictory information in this regard, but there is no conclusive evidence one way or another.

“Me And The Devil” begins, “Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/And I said, ‘Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go,'” and continues with, “You may bury my body down by the highway side/You may bury my body down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”

Johnson’s lyrics to “Cross Road Blues” (“Standin’ at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride”) suggest he was hitchhiking rather than selling his soul to the Devil.

The Devil in these songs may not solely refer to the Christian story of Satan, but equally to the African trickster god, Legba, himself associated with crossroads—though author Tom Graves deems the connection to African deities tenuous. As folklorist Harry M. Hyatt discovered during his research in the South from 1935–1939, when African-Americans born in the 19th or early-20th century said they or anyone else had “sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads,” they had a different meaning in mind. Ample evidence indicates African religious retentions surrounding Legba and the making of a “deal” (not selling the soul in the same sense as in the Faustian tradition cited by Graves) with this so-called “devil” at the crossroads.

“The Blues and the Blues singer has really special powers over women, especially. It is said that the Blues singer could possess women and have any woman they wanted. And so when Robert Johnson came back, having left his community as an apparently mediocre musician, with a clear genius in his guitar style and lyrics, people said he must have sold his soul to the devil. And that fits in with this old African association with the crossroads where you find wisdom: you go down to the crossroads to learn, and in his case to learn in a Faustian pact, with the devil. You sell your soul to become the greatest musician in history.”
—Bill Ferris, American Public Media: The Story with Dick Gordon.

Folk tales of bargains with the Devil have long existed in African-American and European traditions and were adapted into literature. Two well-known examples are Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” in 1824 and Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” in 1936. In the 1930s Hyatt recorded many tales of banjo players, fiddlers, card sharks, dice players, guitarists, and one accordionist selling their souls at crossroads. Folkorist Alan Lomax considered that every African American secular musician was “in the opinion of both himself and his peers, a child of the Devil, a consequence of the black view of the European dance embrace as sinful in the extreme”.

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