The devil’s in the detail

“Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” … or something along those lines. The exact quotation and its source have long been the subject of speculation. But the devil certainly has attracted the attention of many fine composers who have etched him (or maybe her) into the musical annals as vividly as visual artists have done down the ages.

wolfs-glenMy own first brush with a spooky chill down the spine happened at a production of Weber’s 1821 opera Der Freischütz in which the devil makes his dramatic midnight appearance at the end of the Wolf’s Glen Scene to claim the soul of an unwitting victim. It followed a slew of spells and diabolical manifestations, achieved through brilliant stagecraft, culminating in a giant skeletal hand that appeared from nowhere, engulfing and flooring the protagonists in a stunning coup de théâtre. Great stuff.

With Halloween on the horizon, I thought we could get ahead of the curve by recalling some familiar favourites that take Old Nick as their subject, while introducing a few pieces that may not be so generally well known for their devilish subject matter.

tritoneBy way of a preamble, however, we have to mention a sound that was associated with the devil way back in mediaeval times. It comprises just two notes that together attract the technical term ‘tritone’ and the Latin moniker diabolus in musica (the devil in music). It so upset the ear back then that its use was widely avoided. It’s common enough to hear it on city-centre streets nowadays, however, since heavy goods lorries often use this sound for their blaring horns to scare the living daylight out of insouciant pedestrians.

devils-trillGiuseppe Tartini, one of the most noted baroque composers for violin, wrote his Violin Sonata in G minor, known as the Devil’s Trill (8.555960), in 1713. He is said to have attributed the piece to a dream, in which he found the devil at his service and offered him a violin on which he played music that Tartini, on waking, tried to reproduce. A section using multiple stopping and trills, while accompanying a melody on another string, accounts for the work’s fiendish difficulty and resultant nickname. This extract gives you an idea of the challenges.

william-blake-jobSatan comes with a slightly more pastoral edge in Job, a Masque for Dancing (8.553955) by Vaughan Williams; the score works equally well as an accompaniment for staged ballet or in concert. Part of the biblical inspiration for the work stemmed from William Blake’s 21 watercolours for the Book of Job (1820-26), which Vaughan Williams resolved to translate into sound. Possibly to keep his conscience clean and his distance from the devil, he admitted the following about the second movement, Satan’s Dance of Triumph:

“I have never had any conscience about cribbing. I cribbed Satan’s Dance in Job deliberately from the scherzo of Beethoven’s last quartet.”

Maybe you can spot the reference in this extract?

torment-st-anthonyThe devil doesn’t always get his own way, of course. Anthony the Great (c. 251-356) was a Christian saint from Egypt. His travels in the desert have often been described in western art (Hieronymous Bosch, Michelangelo, Salvador Dali et al) and literature (Gustav Flaubert). But the devil failed to deflect the holy man from his path of righteousness. British composer Arnold Bax wrote a piece for two pianos titled The Devil That Tempted St Anthony (8.570413). First performed in 1928, the piece remains largely in a state of impressionistic calm, although this passage suggests the battle of the two spirits getting a little intense.

The devil goes by many names, including that of Mephisto, or Mephistopheles, a demon in German folklore. He appears in this guise in a number of works, and in a surprisingly jolly mood, often swirling around the dance floor in that macabre last waltz that we all have to take part in eventually.

Prokofiev’s Mephisto Waltz (8.553069) comes from his score for the film Lermontov, based on the life of the 19th-century Russian poet, although the composer had such a devilishly tough time getting on with the film’s director Albert Gendelstein that he withdrew from the project and left to someone else to complete the score. Not that you would detect any animosity, however, in these final charming flourishes from the piece.

dance-devilFinally, Mephisto clearly held no terrors for the beautiful people of 19th-century Viennese high society, for whom the Strauss family provided so many waltzes and other dances. Johann Strauss II’s Mephisto’s Höllenrufe (Mephisto’s Summons from Hell) (8.550339) has the fiend trying to put in an appearance at the end of the dance, but gets easily blown away by the carefree swish of the collective ball gowns.

1 thought on “The devil’s in the detail”

Leave a Reply