The Devil in the Violin

Credit: Wikipedia-Louis Leopold Boilly

The devil strikes fear into the souls of the saved due to his sometimes not as visible means of deception. One of those means is the use of music. He has been linked to various instruments, such as the accordion, drums, flute, and saxophone. However, one instrument comes up more often than the others not only in literature, but in music and film. Informally appointed “the devil’s box”, the violin has been labeled the devil’s instrument of darkness not only across different cultures, but throughout history.

It is said in ancient times the devil favored the lyre as his instrument of evil seduction, though he is able to play all musical instruments. As the lyre fell out of favor, he turned to another, more melodic, stringed instrument: the violin. The ability to dance whilst playing the amply curved instrument also made easier for the devil to lead those down his dangerous path. A Norwegian tale illustrates how he lead a whole village to ruin by causing them to dance themselves to exhaustion to the tempting sounds of his strings.

However, Roma folklore offers a different origin story for the devil and his fiddle. A young girl named Maia desired the attention of a young huntsman and was willing to do anything to get it, including making a deal with devil. He transforms her family into components of the violin and instructs her to play it when she spots her beloved. The huntsman falls for the sweet sounds of Maia’s playing and promptly falls in love. Of course, as literature and film has taught us time and time again, dealings with the devil always go south. The devil returned nine days later and demanded their allegiance.

From this point on, the majority of Western religions decried the violin and social dance. Secular music and dance was the devil’s work and to play the violin was the equivalent of turning your back on the Lord. Even then, it did not stop people from doing daring things with this demonic instrument.

The legend of baroque composer Guiseppe Tartini’s most famous piece Violin Sonata in G Major is filled with the stuff devout observers fear. According to Tartini, the devil came to him in a dream one night and was in the process of making a pact with Tartini. Eager to see what the devil could do, Tartini gave his violin to him to assess his skill. In the devil’s virtuosic hands, an enchanting sonata flowed from the violin. Tartini woke up before the deal was complete and raced to transcribe the difficult piece. The technically demanding piece, which is now more commonly known as the Devil’s Trill Sonata has enraptured violinists and listeners alike for centuries.

However, Tartini was outdone by the antics of one Niccolo Paganini. For this mythic figure, it appears the devil was always a part of his life. One legend stated that his mother wanted her child to be a great violinist and she made a pact with the devil to ensure it. Another legend said after locking himself away for days to master his instrument, a deal with the devil gave him the edge he needed to succeed. In adulthood, Paganini was a tall, pale, and thin man with sunken in cheeks, as if a demonic parasite was feeding on his body. His over the top showmanship only added the rumors of possession, with his nimble fingerings and rolling his eyes back  Audience members reported visions of the devil assisting Paganini in seemingly impossible passages.

The devilish violin concept did not die in the Old World musical tradition. Throughout the American South, the king of Hell put the fear in country fiddlers. It was common for fiddlers to hide their instruments within the walls and of their homes, away from the judgemental eyes of conservative local preachers. Those who defied social mores and continued to play tried their best to ward off any sort of satanic violin possession. Inside the “devil’s box”, rattlesnake rattles were placed to frighten the devil away, along with other vermin.

The now standard bluegrass song,”The Devil Went Down to Georgia“, strengthens the devil and social dance connection.  The lyrical tale depicts an epic fiddle duel between Johnny and the devil. In order to keep his precious soul, Johnny bows out classic square dance songs, such as “Fire on the Mountain and “House of the Rising Sun”. His choice of social dance songs not only secure his soul in its rightful place, but a golden violin. While “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is not necessarily a legend on its own, it does draw inspiration from other American folktales, including the Texan tale Rattlesnake Ridge“. This story also recounts the story of a fiddling duel between a young fiddler, this time named Adam and the devil. This duel, being set in Texas, is made more outlandish by wagering that the fiddler to coax the most rattlesnakes out of their homes is deemed the winner. However at the end of this story, Adam does not have the same luck as Johnny. He wins the contest, but has his gun stolen by the trickster devil.

All the legends surrounding the fiddle have varying degrees of consequences with dealing with the devil. Even though the violin has lost its tarnished reputation over the years, the mystique of this instrument will continue to capture the attention of the human race, by devilish means or not.