Angèle Dubeau founded La Pietà in 1997, an all-female string ensemble featuring some of Canada’s best musicians. What she could not have known at the time was that this experiment, originally [...]
Infernal Violins (+bonus DVD)
They spoke about it
More than 50 000 copies has been sold of this great album of Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà. It will make you discover a wide range of classical and popular selection, all on the theme of the Devil…
The ensemble succeeded in combining the virtuosity and the harmony of both worlds onto this recording that will please everyone.
“So I’ll tell you this hell of a story in all its ins and outs; but if there be among you some rascals that have a mind to chase hobgoblins and werewolves, I warn you they better go look outside if the tawny owls are causing pandemonium, because I’m going to start my story by crossing myself seriously, to drive away the Devil and his imps. I had enough of them damned ones in my younger days.”
Honoré Beaugrand, La Chasse-galerie, 1891.
Since the dawn of mankind, music has maintained fascinating and singular relations with the underworld and black magic. Prehistoric man already sought to appease the telluric powers with his haunting drumbeats and incantations. In the Middle Ages, the forces of evil and the Devil himself were often warded off or even mocked right out in front of churches during the presentation of mystery plays and false sabbaths accompanied by music.
If during the Baroque and Classical periods the Devil had become in music an almost mythological figure, the Romantic movement had sometimes seen in him a confidant, almost elevating him to the rank of Muse. But popular imagination, legend and storytelling have always considered the Demon in a more favourable light; he is still the enemy of God but he is seen as rather a roguish roisterer, a rascally reveller; and when he becomes a jigging fiddler, why he’s almost a nice little devil! We speak of him, play his advocate and give him his due; we either find ourselves between him and the deep blue sea or end up with his own luck…
In Quebec, great storytellers such as Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, Louis Fréchette and Honoré Beaugrand have devoted to him their most entertaining tales. Entertaining: that’s the word. The great variety of music presented on this disc is aimed not at exorcising the Evil One but of making light at him. These mostly dare-devil works scoff at him or, quite the opposite, are inspired by him to conjure up spellbinding, entrancing sonorities.
The premise of the record is not meant as a tribute to the Devil; it is a tribute by the women of La Pietà (not in the least she-devils) to the creative powers of those wonderful composers inspired by such a rich subject, which has nourished the imagination in a spectacular and magical way.
The Devil and the Violin
Of all the instruments, the violin is undoubtedly the one that has most often been associated with the Devil. Many engravings have come down to us depicting the violin at the service of the occult: in the grip of the Devil himself playing for Tartini in his sleep or for some country folk dancing a reel on a black sabbath, or in the hands of a demented Paganini accompanying a witches’ dance, to mention but a few examples.
The genesis of the sonata for violin and continuo by Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) known as the Devil’s Trill is surrounded by quite a fantastic legend, worth retelling here in full. The French astronomer Jérôme de Lalande quotes a letter by Tartini in his book Voyage d’un François en Italie (1769): “One night, it was in 1713 [this date is certainly wrong: for stylistic reasons, the sonata that has come down to us could hardly have been composed before 1745], 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. 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 the boldest 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.”
There is no extant autograph manuscript of the sonata, but Jean-Baptiste Cartier, in a note introducing the first edition of the work printed in his treatise L’Art du violon (1798), adds to the legend by telling of how the Italian school of violin playing gave the title that we know “after the Master’s dream, who reported having seen the Devil at the foot of his bed playing the trill written in the final piece of this sonata.”
On the present recording, we hear it in a brilliant arrangement for strings and piano by Louise-Andrée Baril. Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840) also apparently had more than a brush with the Devil: he claimed to be the son of an incubus, allegedly confided to the German author Heinrich Heine that the Devil led him by the hand, and the Church refused him a religious funeral on the grounds he was an unrepentant renegade. Yet, he played like a god, pushing back the frontiers of violin technique; his works are formidable, diabolically daunting—but also undeniably appealing and mesmerizing.
The Caprice No. 24 taken from his Opus 1 (c. 1805), originally for solo violin, is one of the most eloquent examples of his sparkling art. This totally stupefying work has enthralled by its sheer virtuosity some of the greatest composers, such as Brahms and Rachmaninov, who paid it the tribute of using the work as the basis for compositions of theirs. The present arrangement for four violins and two cellos is based on the one for violin and piano written in 1918 by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). We have on violin Angèle Dubeau, Julie Triquet, Véronica Thomas and Noémie Racine, and on cello Thérèse Motard and Carole Bogenez. As for the famous Devil’s Reel, what other piece should one expect to hear played by a mysterious fiddler clad in black, just after midnight, at the close of Shrove Tuesday festivities in the countryside?
The Devil and the Dance
Dancing, apparently, pleases the Devil as much as it does those who take to it—not necessarily for the same reasons. “Everywhere there is lascivious dancing, there findeth thee the Devil,” warned Saint John Chrysostomus… We know moreover that fiends of all kinds are very partial to the dance; we have only to think of all those danses macabres where monsters and demons dance like a bat out of hell, as in that harrowing segment from Disney’s Fantasia on Mussorgsky ‘s A Night on Bald Mountain that spooked us so as children. But like in the movie, the netherworld always ends up swallowing back the demons, the skeletons all return to their tombs and the new dawn seems full of promise.
Similarly, in El Amor Brujo (Love, the Sorcerer) by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), the lovers separated by death are reunited and reconciled in the morning after a night of spells, incantations and invocatory dances. The excerpts heard here were arranged for strings and piano by the composer himself, first in 1915 soon after the premiere of the gitanería, and revised in 1926, the year following the premiere of the definitive ballet. Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) conjures up similar scenes of infernal whirlwinds in his magnificent tone poem Danse macabre, Op. 40 (1874). But, as if to dissipate here too the hellish inferno, he arranged a grotesque version of the work under the title Fossils in his popular Carnival of Animals (1886), a private joke of which the serious composer was quite embarrassed. Note here the clattering of bones rendered by the technique known as col legno, where the string is struck with the wood of the bow.
The Devil at the Opera
The Devil has always made a conspicuous entrance on the opera stage, from the time of Handel up until Busoni’s. His most famous guise is certainly that of Mephistopheles, but he can be found, along with his acolytes and apostles, in all sorts of shapes, sizes and disguises wherever stage technicians have the opportunity to imitate fire and brimstone. However, it was decided here to dissipate any sulphurous odours to pave the way for this parody of the mythological underworld. And it is with an “infernal galop”—a cancan—that the witty Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) presents the gods of Antiquity. Although this famous Overture for the comic opera Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) is not by Offenbach—it was evidently composed by Carl Binder (1816-1860) for a Viennese production in 1860—the unforgettable melodies are indeed by the facetious Frenchman by adoption.
The Classical Devil
Classical instrumental music allowed the Devil to gain a touch of respectability. Boccherini, Berlioz, Schumann, Liszt, Smetana, Dukas, all have been inspired by the fiendish character and have given us masterpieces to prove it.
The composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) composed this little-known but most captivating symphony, his Op. 12, No. 4, subtitled Nella casa del diavolo (In the Devil’s House), from which is presented here the third and final movement. This opens on a slow introduction, identical to that of the first movement, which then segues into an Allegro con molto full of surprises. This allegro is remarkable for its parody of a movement from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan, better known as the Danse des furies from his opera Orphée. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) brings us with his Mephisto Waltz No. 1 one of his most impressive Faust-inspired works. Originally written for full orchestra in 1861, he made two other versions of it, one for solo piano, the other for piano four hands.
The Devil in the 20th Century
As can be well imagined, the Devil was not on holiday in the 20th century. He even distinguished himself particularly well… but let us put aside such grave matters and turn once again to music, where the Fiend has led an active career, particularly in rock’n’roll music. There have often been attempts at linking rock music with Satanism, but usually Lucifer plays the same role he has always played in the arts: that of catharsis and archetype. That is the case, in our opinion, with the Devil-inspired songs by the British band The Rolling Stones. Here is a clever mix of the songs Paint it Black (1966) and Sympathy for the Devil (1968).
François Dompierre, for his part, talks of the Devil in his own way: on the silver screen, he sees him as a cat in his music for Le Matou (1990) after the novel by Yves Beauchemin, as well as in the disquieting atmosphere and melodies from Ennio Morricone ‘s music to Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). And the composer has us discover the Devil’s peculiar and provocative beauty in a work whose theme had haunted him for a long time, and which he wrote especially for La Pietà: Les Beautés du diable (The Devil’s Beauties).
© Jacques-André Houle