Giuseppe Tartini: Sonata in G minor, Didone abbandonata

Giuseppi Tartini was, to put it lightly, a curious character. He was born in 1692 in Pirano, then a part of the Venetian Republic, now in Slovenia. Although as a younger son he was placed on an educational path leading to a career in the clergy, he went to law school instead, took up fencing and playing the violin, and finally burned all his bridges with the local Church when at eighteen he secretly married Elizabetta Premazore, the niece of the Paduan Bishop. When the illicit marriage was discovered, the Bishop charged him with abduction. Far from abducting her, Tartini then did the opposite: abandoned her, escaping arrest only by disguising himself as a pilgrim and slipping out of the city to take refuge with – ironically – Franciscan monks in Assisi. But he wasn’t even safe there: although his performances in the monastery took place behind a curtain, presumably the better for worshippers to focus on the spirituality of the music and not its showmanship, the curtain blew aside on a day when visitors from Padua were there. They recognized him, but he had become so serious and exceptional on the violin that his achievement led to his reconciliation with the Bishop, and he was reunited with his wife; they moved to Venice together, where he studied with and eventually surpassed the existing master of the violin world, Francesco Veracini.

Although he managed to settle down somewhat and stop creating problems he needed to run away from, the wildness of his youth translated into a wide-ranging Enlightenment sensibility of the interconnectedness of various forms of art, and of the arts with science and rationality. His violin school became well-known both for its exclusiveness (he usually had fewer than ten students at a time, saying that even four or five made him feel like “the most worried man in the world”) and his systematic approach to the instrument. He did important studies in the field of acoustics; it was Tartini who first noticed and named what we today refer to as the “overtone” of a chord, the shimmering extra note perceptible only when the notes of a chord are in tune. He collected a large library of philosophy, religion and mathematics, and wrote prolifically: 130 of his violin concertos survive, a similar number of violin sonatas, and forty trio sonatas.

Unsurprisingly given his flair for the dramatic and wide education, Tartini frequently gave his solo sonatas titles that suggest story without being explicitly programmatic. Didone abbandonata is one such sonata; the title, “Dido abandoned,” refers to the legendary Carthaginian queen popularized in the Roman world by Virgil’s Aeneid, but originally a Phoenician founding symbol named Elissa. In the Phoenician tradition, Elissa died dramatically when she stabbed herself on top of a sacrificial pyre in order to avoid marrying a neighbouring Libyan king who was threatening war. The Aeneid, written after Rome’s total destruction of Carthage and in a political milieu where mythological justification for the supposedly ancient enmity between Rome and Carthage was likely to be well-received, transformed the story into a doomed love tale between Dido and the Trojan Aeneas, on his way from defeated Troy to found Rome. The version where the Queen kills herself for the sake of a man, instead of for the sake of avoiding one, was the one that stuck around in popular culture. Although Tartini’s ten-minute sonata has no precise story to it, the mood alternates between the anger of the spurned lover and the lamentation of the woman preparing to die.