10 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired By the Devil
Unsurprisingly music with the devil in mind tends to be in the minor key, highly charged and dramatic. No wonder composers find the subject magnetic—unlimited scope for the imagination and a chance to revel in some musical fire and brimstone.
The tritone gets its name from the three whole tones between two notes, For example if you start on middle C and step up three whole tones you would reach F sharp, (C D E F sharp). This interval, in music theory terms, is called an augmented fourth, as opposed to a perfect fourth which in this case, would be a plain F. It is the same as a diminished fifth .
As the tritone doesn't sound 'perfect' and pleasing it acquired the label 'The Devil's Interval' or 'diabolus in musica' as early as the ninth century1 but composers down the ages have put aside great deal of time for the tritone, using it to invoke the very being the Catholic church wanted to quash.
Guiseppe Tartini 1692-1770
1 Tartini Sonata 'The Devil's Trill'
Legend has it that the devil appeared one night at the foot of Tartini's bed in a dream and played the most extraordinary sonata on his own violin. The following morning Tartini tried to write it down, but was unable. Nevertheless Tartini claimed that the sonata he produced afterwards was the best music he'd ever written, calling it The Devil's Trill.2
The Devil's Trill remains Tartini's most famous work and is technically very demanding due to the amount of double stopping (playing two notes at once) the violinist is called upon to tackle. Add to that the famous trills - playing the two consecutive notes very rapidly in conjunction with another, coming thick and fast, then it really is a fiendish ending to an already exacting work.
Tartini creates an agitated atmosphere of trills and thrills which stretched the abilities of the Baroque violinist, and continues to give modern day players a headache.
The sonata starts sedately enough, with trills in expected places in keeping with the style of the time, but when the allegro strikes up, the trills ornament most bars, and you might believe that the violinist is being chased, little whips from the devil's tale flicking the player as they race along. Tartini inserts a small catch--your-breath andante to help you prepare for the trill-fest that is to come.
Devillishly daring, frenzied and fantastic, violinists who have mastered a faultless technique can have really good fun downright showing off, more often than not with a indulgent extrovert and elaborate cadenza thrown in as in the video I've chosen, obligingly supplied by Fritz Kreisler who really did sup and soup it up with the devil, and for a few broken hairs of the bow in exchange for, maybe not their soul for untold riches, but a rip roaring applause from an enthralled audience.
When the violinist and composer Paganini died in Nice, the Catholic church denied permission to bury his body in his birthplace, Genoa, partly because he had refused the last rites and because of the wild rumours that he was in league with devil as it was assumed no-one could play so brilliantly without his help.
Charles Gounod 1818-1893
2 Gounod Faust
Doesn't everybody fall into temptation every now and then and find the 'bad boy image more attractive and exciting than Steady Eddie? And so it is with Marguerite, who falls under the spell of the manipulative Faust. He's shaken hands with the devil for a short lived charmed life, an aging dissatisfied man swapping his old life as a disillusioned philosopher for a youthful handsome bachelor who in his transformation actively woos and seduces the easily led Marguerite.
It never bodes well for a woman in nineteenth century opera who dares to have sex outside marriage - she almost always dies as punishment - and Marguerite is no exception. Her decline is meteoric, from chaste maiden who wouldn't even take Faust's arm, to murderess, killing the child she has borne out of wedlock, and repenting at the last minute. Her soul ascends to heaven leaving Faust desperately praying, which of course is to be of no avail as his contract with the devil is binding with no get-out clause.
Most people would recognise the Soldiers' Chorus and there are some beautiful arias from this well-loved opera, the Jewel Song possibly being the most familiar. Sung by Marguerite as she tries on necklaces and bracelets from a casket left by Mephistopheles on Faust's behalf in an attempt to win her over, she admires herself in her mirror, thinking how much Faust would desire her now she looks like a princess.
The tritone appears rising up in retribution in Act IV when Valentin, Marguerite's brother, dying from wounds sustained in a duel with Faust, curses his sister and warns she is 'set on an evil course'. The chorus urges Valentin to forgive, but he curses her once more. Dramatic tremolandi from the strings set the scene alight, the basses arpeggiating the tritone. The music ends, low and tritone-laden, a preparation for Marguerite to apply herself to some serious thinking about where her own soul may come to spend eternity. In this extract from Faust, Thomas Allen sings the baritone role of Valentin.
Would you sell your soul to the devil?
Camille Saint-Saëns 1835-1921
3 Saint-Saens Danse Macabre.
Twelve strums from the harp the violin represent the stroke of midnight. Enter the violin in the guise of the devil. The top string, E, is tuned down a semitone, a technique called scordatura, to allow the violinist to perform the tritone chord associated with the devil. It's one of the most arresting solo openings for the violin in the repertoire, designed to strike terror into the heart of the listener, before the waltz - dancing with the devil - begins.
Saint-Säens knew how to write a good tune, and they do say the devil gets the pick of them. Danse Macabre swings along with a rollicking gait, luring you to join him in the ballroom. The orchestra joins in with the swaggering G minor waltz theme played on the guttural G string.
But don't be fooled, the xylophone, masquerading as skeletons who have risen from their graves to be with the devil, cackle and ambush terrified onlookers. Partner the devil at your peril, for the more he whisks you round the dance floor the nearer you are to impending doom, unless you can free yourself as the cock crows, signalling the end of the dance, and the saving of your soul.
I think this recording is gloriously spirited in all senses of the word, as if the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, has grabbed the score by the scruff of the neck and shaken out all the showy orchestration for all to hear, right down to the last couple of throwaway chords.
Hector Berlioz 1803-1869
4 Berlioz The Damnation of Faust
Neither an oratorio nor an opera, Berlioz called his four act monumental work of two hours, give or take, a 'légende dramatique' 3. Despite a financially draining musical cast of large orchestra, 7 part chorus, children's chorus and four soloists, Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust is so vibrant that it has embedded itself as a regular treat in the concert hall.
Berlioz's unconventional route to composition, not being a pianist, but cutting his teeth on the flute and guitar, led to an extraordinary flowering of orchestral colour.
The Pandemonium scene demonstrates it in abundance, letting rip with trombone curses and passages to terrify the living daylights of mid-nineteenth century audiences. Faust and Mephistopheles plot to release Marguerite from her prison cell, riding to her rescue, the horses hooves rhythmically incessant in their galloping by the panic-stricken strings. But Faust is haunted by visions of skeletons and hideous monsters, as intimidating sneering brass, bellow as he races past, while Mephistopheles gleefully claims to the lurking demons to sound their trumpets, for he is ours!
The passage is worthy of any modern film score a composer could stir up, reverberating with venom, derision and desperation. The sudden change of key near the end is particularly up to date, astonishing in its modernity. Shock of the new for the 1840s.
In 1844, the Reverend Rowland Hill eulogised 'The devil should not have the best tunes' not 'why should the devil have all the good music?' which is usually what is misquoted. He lamented the fact that contemporary church music was in decline and it was an appeal for more good quality music to be composed.
Franz Liszt 1811-1886
5 Liszt Mephisto Waltz no 1
The first of Liszt's Mephiso Waltzes is the most well known, the build up of repeated fifths pounding their way up the keyboard in a dissonant dance, the preceding grace notes creating hard edges to the already harsh accented sound.
Based on a poem by the writer Nikolaus Lenau, Mephistopheles, that agent of Satan, and Faust are walking by a wedding feast and join in the revelry.4 Urged on by Mephistopheles, Faust sets his sights on a maiden. Thus ensues a rampantly blatant seduction in the form of an erotic dance, Faust infected by his pact with the Devil has no qualms about anointing his virginal victim with his fervid blessing.
Liszt's mesmerising waltz alternates the blatantly rough and ready with tender promise, delicately balancing his moments between the interplay of the headily provocative and the hypnotic softly-softly.
Faust fills the girl's ears with an ostentatious pandemonium of shamanistic sound, outdoing and drowning out anything that the little village folk band can put out. Sweeping her round with his serpentine, irresistibly beguiling footwork, what mortal has the willpower not to succumb to his hot-blooded charms?
Modest Mussorgsky 1839-1881
6 Mussorgsky Night on a Bare Mountain
Mussorgsky knew how to write terrifying tunes, you only have to think about his portrayal of the fearsome witch Baba Yaga from his Pictures At An Exhibition to know he can conjure up the darkest of dark materials from his pen.
Witches again feature in this work - they have gathered on the desolate mountain to await their commander-in-chief, Satan, who plans to conduct a black mass to celebrate the Sabbath.
No punches are pulled at the start, Mussorgsky propels the music straight into the savage shrieking tritone melee as the witches busily anticipate their master. Viciously earthy, the orchestration never loses sight of its demonic subject, shadowy in the moonlight and spellbindingly mischievous.
You can grasp rough hewn fibres in the sound that Mussorgsky slings into the clear night air. Nothing is refined, it's a full-on blasphemous cartwheeeling of delirium strewn over a treeless mountain, figures silhouetted against the night sky
If you already know this piece and think the recording is unfamiliar, it's Mussorgsky's own version, untouched by the hand of the tinkering Rimsky-Korsakov although that's not to say you can't hear his influence as it flies by in the night. One of his early works, Mussorgsky hasn't yet quite captured the seamless flow and relentless drive, but you can forgive that just for the thrillingly venomous incarnations of Satan and his witches.
To read more about Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition click here.
An Irish Drinking Toast
'May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead.'
Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971
7 Stravinsky The Soldier's Tale
Composed during the World War I, Stravinsky had few resources to play with. A lack of instrumentalists called for a pared down theatrical work based on a Russian folk tale, written for dancer, a narrator, the devil, the soldier, and 7 instruments.
It's a morality tale - be happy with what you have, riches come at a high price - and in this case the soldier loses the people he loves most in the world, tempted by the devil to sell his violin in exchange for great wealth and a high octane life style. The soldier attempts to rid himself of the devil's influence by playing his fiddle, but the devil keeps popping up - the soldier will always be the devil's prisoner.
The violin of course takes centre stage, spikily capricious but with a casual, devil-may-care attitude, hopping about on an ever-changing metrical landscape, foreshadowing the devil's duplicitous intentions to run rings round the gullible soldier. Stravinsky skilfully manages to infer a dual sense of low cunning in the violin's scrappy snatches of tune as if the player is being sounded out as a good candidate for being duped, the the violin being unbreakable bond between them
Indeed the devil gets the last laugh, his triumphal march a cynical parade parodying the soldier's own tune from the beginning of the work, thumbing his nose at his latest stooge.
Giacomo Meyerbeer 1791-1864
8 Meyerbeer Robert le Diable
In its day Meyerbeer's lengthy opera Robert le diable was immensely successful. By the time Meyerbeer died Paris had staged no less than 470 performances.5 Chopin expressed his admiration, saying ‘It is a masterpiece. Meyerbeer has made himself immortal.’6 and Berlioz also gushed that it ‘provides the most astonishing example of the power of instrumentation when applied to dramatic music’7
As is often the way with libretti, the opera has a rather convoluted plot. Set around the time of William the Conqueror, the eponymous hero learns he is the son of one of his friends, Bertram, who is a devil. Alas, Bertram behaves in a similar vein to Mephistopheles, making trouble for various characters in the opera, including his son, trying to persuade to him sign his soul over to the devil. Good prevails over evil and in the final scene Bertram is engulfed by the fiery furnace of hell while Robert is united with the princess he has lost his heart to.
The overture creeps in stealthily, a quiet drumroll providing the backdrop for oppressive trombone calls. The devil is about to make his appearance. The tyranny continues, based on the opening theme, building up, laying the groundwork for the murky action to come.
John Field 1782-1837
9 John Field Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself
John Field is known predominantly to have been the composer of the nocturne who inspired Chopin to develop the popular genre. This Irish dance which appropriately enough idiomatically lends itself to the fiddle may have been penned by John Field himself for the band he was a member of,8 but yea or nay, it's a jolly jig worthy of a good old fashioned céili.
Field turns it from a rough and ready folk tune played at the local inn to a genteel drawing room early-Mozart-style rondo for keyboard, of which there were several types in his day, ranging from harpsicord to spinet through to the clavicord and early piano.
Rondos are pieces of music that alternates a main tune with various contrasting ones, though in more complicated versions, the alternating ones can also be repeated in developed forms.
The main theme of the rondo is split into two parts, and repeated at its first outing with four different, but stylistically similar tunes in between, switching to the minor key to perk up the ear. Curiously Field doesn't return to the main theme to round it off which is normal practice, but uses the last new theme to finish.
It has to be said, this is a very well mannered, sedate, somewhat sleepy devil who isn't up to a great deal of mischief. He must have given himself the day off.
Guiseppe Verdi 1813-1901
10 Verdi Giovanni d'Arco Tu sei bella (The Demon's Waltz)
The Devil dances and tempts once more in Verdi's opera about the 15th century saint Joan of Arc. Poetic license in the libretto by Termistocle Solera has Joan dying of battle wounds rather than at the stake and offers her a love interest with no less than the French Dauphin, the future King Charles, captivated by her unswerving loyalty to France. It is this very devotion to him that leads her father to believe she is possessed by the devil, particularly as she hears demon voices.
The chorus, taking on the parts of the demonic and angelic voices raging in Joan's head, sing a waltz. Truth be told, the angels are just that bit too angelic, and goodness has definitely got the better of evil which has lost its mojo. On top of all that there is an unfortunate reminder of the overplayed 'Chopsticks' melody in Tu sei bella (You Are Beautiful), hardly setting the imagination ablaze with visions of the devil incarnate.
Supposedly it was a bit of a hit in Verdi's time,9 but unsurprisingly it's been consigned to relative obscurity in the last few decades.
1 Brian Allen The Devil's Chord
3 Grove Music
4 Rolf-Peter Wille
5 Knud Arne Jurgensen
6 Musicweb International
7 The Hector Berlioz Society
8 Peter Medhurst
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© 2018 Frances Metcalfe