Tartini- The 30 Solo Sonatas – A resource page for ‘The Exhale’

Posted on July 11th, 2020 by

Peter Sheppard Skærved – The Violinists’ Practice Desk – Wednesday July 15th 4pm

At the desk – morning of the 15th July 2017
Tartini, pictured at the beginning of his career in Padua-interestingly holding a vola d’amore

Giuseppe Tartini – 30 Sonate Piccole ‘To play well, you must sing well’: exploring a cycle In the last twenty years of his life, Tartini devoted himself to two works on music and mathematics and a six-hour-long cycle of works for violin alone. These works bring together his unique sensibility, to the natural world, to the poetry of Petrarch and Tasso, and the revolution which he was leading in the understanding of harmonics and subtones. Tartini’s notes, as violinists call them, became a vital tool in the voicing and tuning of contrapuntal writing. This session explores his technical and sonic world, and considers some of the techniques we can use to enter it as players.

It is hard, today, to grasp the importance which the playing, music, theories and imagination of Giuseppe Tartini held for his generations and those which followed.

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

Something of his stature can be gleaned from an account written by Ole Bull (1810–80), the most celebrated Nordic violinist of any age. In August 1834 Bull was in Padua, where Tartini had died 64 years earlier, and met a 90-year old violinist who had been a student of Tartini. He wrote to his mother:

‘I sought him out, and begged him to take his violin so that I might hear him play. With the greatest amiability, he took out an old Amati. The very sight of it made me begin to weep. And then he drew his bow, so I could hear the tone through which I understood answered all of Tartini’s Method just as could be seen in the letter from the famous master.’

The letter to which Bull referred was written to the violinist, composer and singer Maddalena Sirmen (née Lombardini) (1745–1818) and circulated widely after Tartini’s death in 1770 (in 1779 Charles Burney organised its publication in London ). To this day, there is no more important piece of writing on the use of the bow, and on how to practise. The disciples of Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755–1824) regarded it as a touchstone; they built a school of violin-playing around its principles. In 1834 one of these musicians, Pierre Baillot (1771–1836), remarked: ‘It is filled with details which contribute most to variety of expression than to variety of bowing, with regard to what is understood today as ‘feeling’.’ Charles Burney, who arrived in Padua shortly after Tartini’s death, admitted that much of Tartini’s work and theoretical writing was beyond him: ‘Tartini soars above the reach of my conceptions; and in this case I am ready to apply to him what Socrates said to Euripides, upon being asked by that poet how he like the poetry of Heraclitus – ‘What I understand is excellent, which inclines me to believe that what I do not understand is excellent likewise’.’

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

In the last twenty years of his life, Tartini became increasingly concerned with the theory and physics of music. He published major works on harmony and mathematics, the first of which, Trattato di musica secondo la vera scienza dell’armonia, was published in Padua in 1754. In 1750 there is the first mention of Sonate piccole, in a letter he wrote on 24 February to the poet-philosopher Francesco Algarotti (1712–64), who was employed at the court of Frederick the Great. This cycle would eventually forms one of the largest integrated sets of sonatas for any instrument, and the gradual change of handwriting in the source indicates that Tartini worked on this set for a number of years, perhaps into his old age.

Playlist of my 5 volume set of the complete solo sonatas

At first glance, the works in the cycle of Sonate piccole appear to be variously scored for violin alone and violino e violoncello o cembalo. But Tartini himself noted in his February 1750 letter to Algarotti that in these sonatas, the cello (‘bassetto’) part was there as a formality, or as he put it, ‘per ceremonia’. Tartini noted: ‘I have played these without bassetto, and that is my true intention’. It is that ‘true intention’ I have followed in these recordings.

The pioneering Tartini scholar Paul Brainerd wrote: The whole tendency of the Piccole Sonate, as compared to Tartini’s sonatas with obbligato bass of the same period, is toward the utmost stylistic simplicity […] – a consequence of Tartini’s recent and avid espousal of the aesthetics of Nature-imitation.’

Tartini built this idealist ‘nature-imitation’ around something very real, and very ‘natural’, the phenomenon of the ‘third sound’, or what would come to be known as ‘Tartini’s notes’ amongst violinists. In 1754 he wrote: The 3rd Sound is the real physical fundamental bass of any given interval, and of any given pair of melody lines; the successive 3rd sounds produced by the combination constitute the true fundamental basso of melody. Any extra bass would be ridiculous, or at best, a constraint.

By 1754 it was clear that in Tartini’s heart the true music was that in which the true bass was implied, ‘in the air’; and so to compose music with a written bass would be a betrayal, perhaps even heresy. The eventual manifestation of the Sonate piccole was proof of his thesis, one which few of Tartini’s contemporaries were prepared to accept in toto.

What material exists for these ‘small sonatas’? In terms of publication, there is only a two-volume edition of 26 Piccole Sonate, brought out by Edizioni G. Zanibon in 1970 and there is an uninformative edition of one of these works, in D major (No. 20 in this survey) by Schott & Co. from 1973. There is no critical edition of the Sonate piccole, a situation no doubt arising from the assumption that Tartini was not a first-rate composer, or that the sources for this cycle are problematic. But they are not – there is a wonderful manuscript. This document, MS.1888, is held in the Library of the Basilica of S Antonio in Padua, Tartini’s home for most of his life, and also his employer. The manuscript is the only substantial sampler of Tartini’s own handwriting. But what a sampler!

Tartini-D minor Variations from the Manuscript of the Sonatas

Any composer’s approach to the page is instructive, and can provide clues to any number of aspects of his output. The manuscript of the Sonate piccole provides the richest imaginable array of these clues, ranging from the painstaking sequence of experimentation, composition, editing and rewriting familiar to any writer, through to the ‘white heat’ of inspiration, instrument close by, when, caught up in the moment, the composer forgets the number of beats on the bar and writes on furiously, improvising, as it were, pen in hand, until he catches his mistake, rewinds the two or three errant bars, and goes on correctly. The manuscript does not provide a ‘final version’ (certainly not an Urtext) but offers multiple routes, and re-numberings (which appear unresolved), that the composer-performer developed and explored over time for himself.

My series of recordings, then, is my reading of the source, an option, and I certainly do not think of it as ‘right’. At first glance, it appears that there are 26 sonatas, as published. But the Sonata numbered ‘26’ in the source, is actually the 27th in sequence.

The Zanibon edition avoided this anomaly by ignoring the last sonata in the numbered sequence altogether. But even that ‘extra’ sonata finishes on page 88 of the manuscript: there are eighteen more pages, not of notes, but of finished works, numerous extra movements, second and third versions and vocal material, scattered across the whole sequence of pages. Thus there appears to be material in Tartini’s hand for 30 sonatas.

There are a number of entries in what seems to be a different scribal hand, written in a compositional style which is, to my ears, different from Tartini’s. These works are therefore not included in my reading of the Padua manuscript. It’s up to today’s performer to take on the mantle of Tartini, and make these decisions for themselves.

It will be noted that, from Sonata No. 15 onwards, my numbering of the Sonatas is at one remove from that in the manuscript. This results from my use of the linking passage which Tartini inserted at the end of what originally was Sonata No. 14. As a result, Sonatas 14 and 15 became one extended G major piece, and the numbering, from then on, is one out.

Since the Padua manuscript bears the marks of work over time, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discriminate between work which one might call ‘composition’ and that which might be seen to be ‘performance notes’. Indeed, when one looks at a score which was clearly written by an improvising composer for his own use, it would be naïve to expect that there would be any difference between the two. There are therefore there are many possible ‘avenues’ through the score, partially resulting, in my understanding, from Tartini’s long re-evaluation of the material, both ‘at the desk’ and in performance.

Similarly, over the years of extended study, performance, recording, and more performance of these Sonatas, my own understanding of what they might be and how they fit into Tartini’s œuvre has developed and shifted. This evolution is inevitable, and right. Music is a fluid, morphing thing, as we are, and it would be tragic were we to respond to uncertainty with rigidity of ideas.

Recently, my conception of this work, or cycle of works, has been enhanced by extended work and recording of Tartini’s most purely ‘violinistic’ composition, his L’arte del arco: 50 Variations on Gavotte from Corelli’s Op. 5. Both these come from the same hand, the same bow, and there is evidence that Tartini’s extended work on the Variations and the Sonate piccole may have overlapped at times. But the manifold differences between these two cycles offers a glimpse of the Tartini’s sophisticated approach to violin-writing.

Some of the scores for the Tartini Cycle on my floor 10 4 16

The 50 Variations are a masterpiece of restraint. For all their drama, and technical complexity, they stay within a narrow compass on the violin (only two-and-a-half octaves) and never leave the harmonic scheme of Corelli’s theme (not even to move to the minor). The rhetoric and violinistic approach is deliberately restricted to that which Corelli, Tartini’s great forebear, would have understood, and indeed, used. It’s a strictly classicising, almost Spartan, gesture, as if Tartini were saying to his audience, to Corelli and about himself: ‘Look, I can use the laconic language of the past, pay homage to the great Corelli, and with all that, there is no limit to the adventure and drama I can access’.

In his Piccole Sonate Tartini proffered something completely different. The approach to the instrument, to harmony, to drama, to tonality is contained only by the reach of his protean imagination. The tessitura of the Sonatas is well over three octaves, and the composer allows free reign to his invention, while also offering an extended primer into his ‘new’ harmonic system, his attempt to rationalise the mathematics and music of Pythagoras and Euclid with the actuality of harmonics (Pythagoras eschewed all the harmonics which produced the major or minor third). It seems to me that Tartini was offering a vision of the future of music; indeed, the work of Dallapiccola and Rochberg [three centuries later would reveal how right he was. In these two manifestations of ‘himself’, Tartini provided the curious with a model of the human condition. We can, he seemed to say, be at once, conditioned by both our typologies and our inventions. Although they are contradictory, our imagination, our very being craves them both: past and future.