Tartini ‘Sonate Piccole 25-30’

Posted on April 26th, 2019 by


Tartini in the last years of his life, by George Dance the Younger

Tartini – Sonate Piccole Nos 25-30
This disc concludes my reading of the astonishing manuscript which Tartini left of us, of 30 sonatas which he described as ‘Sonate Piccole’ (‘Little Sonatas). This document, manuscript inventory number 1888, fascicle 1, is to be found in the Biblioteca Antoniana, Basilica del Santo, Padua. It consists of 109 pages, which appear to have been returned to, over a number of years, repeatedly, and with great attention. It is fitting, that the only substantial musical document in Tartini’s hand is to be found where he spent most of his working life, near fifty years, in and near the precincts of the celebrated 13th century Pontifical Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua.

Conventionally, Tartini’s output is divided between concert works, such as the concerti and continuo sonatas, and pedagogical output, ranging from l’Arte dell’Arco through to the purely scientific treatises on harmonics. My impression is that the Piccole Sonate, which occupied Tartini from the mid-1740s until his death in 1770, can be seen as both, a musical and philosophical ‘summa’ of his work. It seems to me, as a player, that everything is to be found therein: Tartini would no doubt reject the suggestion, but the whole might be seen as an act of self-portraiture.

Tartini, pictured at the beginning of his career in Padua-interestingly holding a vola d’amore

Sonata 25
The ‘siciliano’ which opens this sonata is almost deliberately formal, as if Tartini was deliberately choosing to turn his face from the heartfelt text which appends it:

‘Without you, my beloved, I cannot stand, the bitter penalty of such, would leave me delirious.’

Tartini’s melody is sensuous, swooning even, but underpinned by apparently simplistic accompaniment. This is, from this player’s point of view, explained, by the mood of the three following movements, which have a formal, even military tenor. The Menuet is based on the same, simple motive as the first movement, and like it, eschews fantasy. The only ‘characteristic’ gestures Tartini allows himself, are leaps across the instrument at the start of the second half. The gigue-like third movement, is, by contrast, full of colour and, suddenly, a handful of virtuoso flourishes: melodies in thirds, clashing discords, ‘unisons’, chromatic passing notes, and a trill on the final note, rare in his writing. The last movement, Andante, is a march, with some brilliant ‘written-out’ ornamentation.

Tartini-‘To play well, you must sing well…’

Sonata 26
This sonata, the last bearing a formal (Roman) numbering, is found scattered between two locations in Tartini’s manuscript. The first three movements take up pages 84 and 85, which eccentrically then changes tack twice to include movements other keys, of which more later. However, if the violinist has been paying attention, two more movements are found earlier in the fascicle.
No manuscript that I know gives me clearer indication of how much this composer prized (refused to waste) paper. At the bottom of pages 32-33 (over 50 pages earlier) are two movements in B Flat major. These stand out here, as they are written in the looser hand of the later pages.
Some have suggested that this writing betrays a tremulousness resulting from a stroke Tartini suffered in 1768. However, after years playing and studying these pages, I disagree. My impression is that Tartini began the work intending the manuscript to be a presentation copy. But at some point, or just with time, the score became increasingly personal, something not to be given away. Perhaps this because he started using it, playing from it. Incrementally, his notation became more mnemonic for himself, no-one else, and, and elements of shorthand crept in. Sometime into the process, Tartini stopped worrying about the presentation-standard appearance of the work, and consequently, started using spaces, and margins to compose. Increasingly, rewritings, different options of movement orders, began to appear, clustering in every available space. The writing becomes relaxed, but very far from palsied.
The two movements found on Page 32-3 consist of a minuet, markedly more expressive than the example in the previous sonata. It is followed by an aria-like finale, beside which is inscribed:

‘Sperai vicino il lido Credei calmato il vento; Ma trasportar mi sento Fra le tempeste ancor/I hoped that the shore was near, I believed that the wind had calmed: but I feel that I am carried off into the storms once more’

The line comes from the opera Demofonte. By the end of the 18th century, this become one of the most re-used libretti by the prodigious Pietro Metastasio (1698 –1782). It had first been set by Caldara and Vivaldi (Mozart would use this very aria in 1781) . As ever, Tartini made no attempt to set the words of this aria, but rather offered it as an object for contemplation by the player, much as C P E Bach wrote extracts from Shakespeare’s Hamlet into his keyboard fantasies in the late 1760s.

Wonderful bow by Antonino Airenti, based on Tartini’s bow, kept in the collection of the the Trieste Conservatory.

Sonata 27 D minor
From this point in the manuscript, it becomes difficult to say that Tartini had decided on a final order for the works, and none of the groupings of movements are numbered. So each player has to take their own decisions; anyone who plays the cycle repeatedly, as I have, will find that they take different routes through each time. This D minor Sonata, to which I have given the number ’27,’ first appears on Page 85 – the first movement with an alternative option for extra decoration in the ‘b section’. This movement is followed by an instruction: ‘go to page 91’, and the first few notes of the gigue to be found 6 ½ lines down that page. Here it seems to have begun as the third movement of a different version of what can only be seen as another version of the same sonata. It’s followed, on the same page, by a 12/8 movement, which runs over the page and is followed by a variations which is presented in a frustrating/inspiring mess, with all sorts of re-writings, and ‘go-to’ indications, and Tartini’s particularly personal system of orientation marks. There’s no consistency in these signs, which range from numbers to crosses, scrolling figures, and ‘questa’ (‘This’).
It seems that Tartini became frustrated with his own disorganisation: six pages later, he wrote out a neat copy of the whole sonata, with movement titles, and some of the alternative decorations incorporated in the text. This is written in Tartini’s ‘presentation’ handwriting, laid out beautifully over two pages. Perhaps he had planned to give this sonata to someone else to play. Or, maybe, he had decided to neaten up his work.

Tartini ‘un Cilindro sonoo, per esempio un timpano, o tamburo’ (1754)

Sonata 28 A minor
This large-scale A minor Sonata, emerges in a similar fashion to the previous (the fragmentary material for which finishes on Page 93 of the manuscript). Five movements are laid out neatly over the next three pages. However, the last, a theme and variations, should be familiar to the careful player, as Tartini first wrote them out, chaotically, on pages 87-8. However, we should not make the mistake of imagining that the neat version to be found on pages 94-6 is a fair copy; charmingly, Tartini got so caught up in the sweep of the last three lines of this increasingly energetic couplets movement, that he forget that he was writing 2/4, not 3/4. Cue some energetic crossing-out in this otherwise immaculately-presented movement.

From Tartini’s ‘Trattao di Musica seconda la vera scienza dell’Armonia’ (Padua 1754)

Sonata 29 G Major
The Sonata that I have chosen to number ‘29’ is spread over pages 100, 104 and 105 of the MS. Although there are only three movements, one of them is written out twice, and Tartini does not give any clue as to what order they should be played. I made the decision to include these linked movements in my chosen sequence, but to leave out orphan movements in another hand on pages 99, and 101-3. This is a personal decision, and I would expect that each player who chooses to take on the full arch of the cycle, will come to a different one.
Like all of Tartini’s output, this sonata feels what we today might call, ‘natural’, both in its construction and affect. I feel he was, in some ways, born a generation too early, that he would have been very at home among the later enlightenment thinkers influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and the musicians who came to venerate his memory, most especially in France. Writing to the philosopher Francesco Algarotti in November 1749, he wrote:

‘I feel more at home with nature than art, having no other art than the imitation of nature.’

Working with the Manuscript. At the bottom of the page, Tartini’s MS for a movement based on Mestastio’s

Sonata 30 E minor
The last page of Tartini’s manuscript is a delightful puzzle. It is a ‘one-page sonata’, but, one of the most substantial of the set. The single sheet, Page 109, is not crowded, but eight movements are included on the page, four of them in full. Unlike some of the earlier musical puzzles in the cycle, nothing on this page shows the composer at work. It is clear that this is a fair copy, designed for use by the performer, but only a performer who knows Tartini’s working methods (and the earlier sonatas) intimately, i.e., the composer himself.
Viewing this page next to the very first of the cycle gives clear indication of how far Tartini travelled, in his intentions and notational methods, in the many years he worked on the Piccole Sonate. We are a long way from the highly organised, presentation score, which Tartini planned and started. This page is close to being a mnemonic, the musical equivalent of a knotted handkerchief, for the composer to perform himself, without the irritation of page-turns.
I wonder, whether the idea of laying the sonata out on just one page influenced its composition: the four written- out movements, nos. 1, 5, 6 and 8, are all based on the same falling octave, E’ to E. Movements 3 and 4 are both indicated in no more than five or six notes. These are immediately recognisable from much earlier in the set, Sonata No 6 in E minor, in which they appear as movements two and three. The intention is clear, these earlier movements should be played here.
The following movement, marked ‘menuet’, is a little more mysterious. Tartini has written three full bars of music, and no more. These do not link to any immediately apparent spot in the cycle, and it is clear that this was a reminder of a musical form which the composer-performance would have little difficult recalling or improvising. However, I am not Tartini, so had to look around for a model, which can been found on page 75, the last movement of the 24th Sonata, in E major. It is an elementary exercise to take the harmonic and gestural material from this movement, and wrangle it into E minor, using Tartini’s three bar model. I cannot say that this solution was the composer’s, but it seems to work. To play from a short-score such as this, we just have to put ourselves into the composer’s mind-set.
The seventh movement offered another challenge. Tartini has left two bars of a minuet, followed by the indication ‘etc:’. At first sight, I presumed that he was indicating that, like movements 2 and 3, the whole might be found elsewhere in the manuscript. This got me nowhere. But the ‘etc.’ indication irked me; I realised that he was indicating that he, now I, should simply continue … and then the penny dropped. The fifteen notes that Tartini has left are the same as the 15 notes which begin the previous movement, ‘Aria Cantabile’, which is contained in full on the same system of score. All one needs to do, is to ‘unroll’ the same melodic material, but in 3/- , not 4/4. So it might be seen as a type of ‘double’ albeit a double made strange, and changed from 4/4 to 3/4.
I don’t mind admitting that it can feel like an act of hubris to ‘solve’ a few of the puzzles in Tartini’s ‘notations for himself’. He was famously intolerant of performers who took too much liberty in performance:

‘Artificial figures cannot, and must not be used whenever the subject of the composition and its details have a particular intention or sentiment, which must not be altered in any way and must be expressed as it is.’

The last movement of the last sonata is very far from valediction. It is, in some ways, the wildest, and most folk-like of the whole cycle. At the end of everything, I imagine, Tartini was never completely Italian, but remembered the Istrian, even Illyrian heritage, of his birthplace of Piran.