Tartini was the founder of an important school of violin playing at Padua, and the originator of certain improvements in the construction and technique of the bow.
Farzago, his contemporary (author of Lodi di G. Tartini, Padua, 1770) wrote that Tartini’s father was a member of a good Florentine family; a man whose philanthropic nature led him to give a lot of money to the church, and in return he received a title.
From documents belonging to the Bishop of Capo d’Istria, Paolo Naldini, it would appear that Tartini’s father became a member of the staff of the Public Salt Works in Pirano on September 16, 1692; but he probably settled there some years before that as the marriage registers for the year of 1685 announce that Giovanni Antonio Tartini espoused Catarina, daughter of Messer Pietro Zangando on March 5, 1685 at Pirano.
It is also recorded the baptism of ‘Iseppo,’ son of Giovanni Tartini by Pre Giov Maria Vanturnini, Canon: Godfather Signor Simon Testa; Godmother, Signora Bartolomea, wife of Signor Girolamo Apollonio.
Tartini’s father appears to have been wealthy being the owner of a beautiful villa named Struegnano and other property nearby.
One of the priests belonging to the order of St. Filippo of Neri oversaw Tartini’s early education and soon after that he was admitted into the Collegio dei Padri delle Scuole Pie, at Capo d’Istria. He learned the rudiments of violin playing here.
He remained at Capo d’Istria until 1709, when his father obtained permission from the Bishop (Paolo Naldini) to pursue his studies at the University of Padua. The Bishop’s consent is dated February 22, 1709.
The father’s wish was to see his son one of the brotherhood of the Minori Conventuali, and to this end he even went as far as to promise a handsome contribution to the ‘Convento’ of Pirano should his desire be attained.
The prospect of studying theology was not what Giuseppe Tartini wanted, and he entered the University of Padua as a law student.
He was 17 and loved art, and he especially loved fencing in which he became so excellent that few could beat him.
In addition to this he was devoted to music, and at one time seriously contemplated opening a fencing school at Naples which would form his means of support while he followed his inclination as a violinist.
Instead he remained at the University until he was 20 (1713) when he met Elisabetta Premazone. Elisabetta has been alluded to as the niece of Cardinal Giorgio Cornaro. More recent opinion is that there was no such connection and that perhaps she was a daughter of one of his dependents.
In any event, the Cardinal occupied himself with her welfare, and in the matter of her runaway marriage with Tartini his interest took the form of wrathful disapproval, which he demonstrated by ordering Tartini’s arrest.
To this were added the strong objections of his family, who deprived him of all support, and in this predicament Tartini found himself compelled to leave the city disguised as a monk, leaving his wife at Padua.
The story goes that he wended his way towards Rome in the first instance, then wandered wearily over the country, living from hand to mouth, until he met a relative who occupied a position as a custodian in the Monastery of Assisi, where he found refuge.
Little is known of Tartini’s residence at Assisi, except that it was a time of serious study and contemplation for him. Here, according to his friend Gian Rinaldo Carli, Professor of Navigation and Astronomy at the University of Padua, he discovered what is generally known as the ‘third sound,’ a problem in acoustics beyond his scientific knowledge to explain, but since lucidly expounded by Helmholtz.
He also inaugurated the use of the violin strings thicker than those that had served violinists, and in addition he had his bow made of lighter wood, corrected the outward bulge of the stick, diminished the size of the head, and fluted the wood at the heel of the bow so as to obtain a surer grip.
It was here also that he wrote his famous ‘Trillo del Diavolo’ which, according to the account of its composition which he gave to M. Lalande the great astronomer, came to him in a dream.
This story is recounted by Lalande in his Voyage d’un Francous en Italie (1765-66, vol. viii. P. 292) in the following manner:
‘One night I dreamt that I had made a bargain with the devil for my soul. Everything went at my command; my novel servant anticipated every one of my wishes. Then the idea suggested itself to hand him my violin to see what he would do with it. Great was my astonishment when I heard him play, with consummate skill, a Sonata of such exquisite beauty as surpassed to the boldest of flights of my imagination. I felt enraptured; transported, enchanted; my breath failed me, and – I awoke. Seizing my violin I tried to reproduce the sounds I had heard. But in vain. The piece I then composed, The Devil’s Sonata, although the best I ever wrote, how far was it below the one I had heard in my dream.’
Tartini remained at Assisi nearly two years studying composition with the ‘padre Boemo’, and attracting people to the Monastery Chapel by the fame of his violin playing.
No member of the congregation knew who the wonderful artist was, as he always remained shrouded from view behind a heavy curtain. But the moment of his discovery and release came at last.
It was on the 1st of August 1715, when the greatest number of Italians made a customary pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis to implore his grace, that the deacon in presenting incense to the Fathers inadvertently pulled aside the curtains concealing the entry to the choir, and revealed the figure of Tartini, who was instantly recognized by some Paduans present.
The news spread quickly to Padua, where his wife languished for him. Under the circumstances the Cardinal’s heart became softened, and he removed all obstacles to the reunion of the couple.
Thus Tartini was now free to return to his home in Padua. Here he mixed with the most cultured and aristocratic people of his day, devoting himself entirely to music.
His fame as a violinist began to spread so that when Verancini visited Venice in 1716, Tartini was invited to compete with the eminent Florentine at the Palace of His Excellency Pisano-Mocenigo to honor the visit of the Elector of Saxony.
To his chagrin, Tartini discovered on hearing Veracini at Cremon before the contest, that the artist excelled him in many ways, especially in his management of the bow.
Humiliated and mortified by the disclosure, he again left his wife – this time in care of his brother Domenico at Pirano – and returned to Ancona, where he applied himself assiduously until he had obtained the perfection he desired.
Whether he had any master at Anocna the authorities fail to state, but it may have been that he profited by the teaching of a certain obscure musician named Guilo Terni, whom Tartini stated to have been his first master, adding that he had studied very little until after he was thirty years of age.
However, this may be, it was before that age that he received an invitation to accept the post of first violin at the famous Cappella del Santo at Padua. The document which called him to the appointment is dated April 3, 172, and states that the bearer is asked to conduct ‘Signor Giuseppe Tartini, an extraordinary violinist, and that he shall have an annual stipend of 150 florins, also that any proof of his excellence in his profession shall be dispensed with.
The latter was an exceptional favor, as the choir and players of the Chapel, numbering sixteen singers and twenty four instrumentalists, was considered one of the finest in Italy, and the musicians were subjected to strict annual examinations.
A further benefit was extended to Tartini by the granting to him of permission to play at other places besides the Chapel, but he used this privilege very rarely until 1723, when he accepted the invitation of a passionate musical devotee, the Chancellor of Bohemia – Count Kinsky – to come to Prague.
With him went Antonio Vandidi, the principal violoncellist of the Cappella del Santo, and they both assisted at the Festival held in honor of the Coronation of the German Emperor, Charles VI., at Vienna.
In Prague Tartini created a veritable furor, remaining there from 1723 to 1725 as conductor of Count Kinsky’s band.
But success could not lighten the life of a man who was harassed by family worries, and uncongenial surroundings. His letters addressed to his brother from Prague reveal that his troubles were many.
His family – and more especially his brother Domenico – seemed to be threatened with some terrible financial crisis, and Tartini was constantly called upon for aid, and writing to Domenico on August 10, 1725, the devout maestro feels he can do but little to alleviate his brother’s miseries, prays ‘that He may assist you and me…and teach me, and help me to remain in a place where the air, the food, and the people are equally distasteful to me. I see clearly I cannot live here without being reduced very shortly by so many ills, that I shall have to go constantly about with a physic bottle in my hands.’
Under the circumstances he tells his brother that he is firmly resolved to return to his own country, ‘for the skin is nearer than the purse.’
In 1726 he left the abhorred atmosphere of the city of Prague for Padua, delaying he return only by a visit to one of his great admirers at Venice, he Excellency Michele Morosini di San Stefano. This dignitary interested himself in the misfortunes of Tartini’s family, and advised him to apply to the Fisc of the Public Salt Works on behalf of his brother, all of which Tartini immediately posted on to Domenico, advising that in sending the application to the Fisc, ‘it would be wise to present him with a barrel of that good black Moscato.’
The year 1728 saw the installation of Tartini’s school of violin playing at Padua, an establishment whose excellence gained for it the title of ‘School of the Nations,’ while its prime instigator himself was known as the ‘Master of Nations.’
In a letter written by Tartini from Padua on September 18, 1739, to the Padre Martini of Bologna, who was interesting himself on behalf of a youth, a protégé of Count Cornelio Pepoli, we can form an idea of students’ fees for tuition at this school.
‘The expenses,’ he writes, ‘for his board (not in my house, as I do not care to take scholars in my home, but) in the house of my assistant, would be fifty paoli a month, because living is dearer in Padua than in Venice. As for my own honorarium it will be two zucchini a month for solo violin alone; if he wishes counterpoint also, my fee will be three zucchini. Some of my pupils pay be more, but I am accustomed to two zucchini for the violin alone. If the youth is gifted, in one year, if God wills, his studies will be completed, as scholars with small talents have completed their studies in two years…’
From the time that Tartini returned to Padua after his residence at Prague not even the most tempting offers could induce him to leave his native country again.
His wife was mainly responsible for this. She was apparently a nervous, suffering, exacting creature, who yet commanded her husband’s patient devotion to the end of his life.
On her account he was content to forego conquests farther afield, and thus refused the proposal of Sir Edward Walpole to come to London. His wife agreed with him that it was best for them to be satisfied with their state.
‘Although not rich, I have sufficient and do not need for more,’ is the manner in which he is reported to have declined the offer.
The invitation of Louis Henri, Prince of Condo, to come to Paris met with a similar reply in the same year.
Then came the renewal of the offer by the Duc De Noailles; in 1724 this again was declined, as was also the tempting offer of Lord Middlesex, who thought that 3000 lire would surely lure the great violinist from his native land to London.
However, although gifted with an apparently modest ambition, Tartini occasionally toured in his own country.
A little before 1740 he journeyed to Rome at the request of Cardinal Oliviere, at whose palace he met all the noblesse of the city, and even Pope Clement XII. Himself.
It was at the request of this Pontiff that Tartini wrote his ‘Misere,’ which was performed on Ash Wednesday in the Sistine Chapel.
On his way to Cardinal Olivieri’s, Tartini visited Venice, Milan, Florence, Livorno, bologna, Napes, and Palermo.
In 1768 his health began to fail. A cancerous growth formed in his foot, and caused him terrible suffering until his death on February 26, 1770. His student, Pietro Nardini was with him at the end.