Giuseppe Tartini: (b Pirano, Istria [now Piran, Istra, Slovenia], 8 April 1692; d Padua, 26 Feb 1770). Italian composer, violinist, teacher and theorist.
Tartini’s father Giovanni Antonio, of Florentine origin, was general manager of the salt mills in Pirano. Giuseppe, destined for the church by his pious parents, was to have been first a minore conventuale, a branch of the Franciscan order, and subsequently a full priest. To this end he was educated in his native town and then in nearby Capodistria (now Koper, Slovenia) at the scuole pie; as well as the humanities and rhetoric, he studied the rudiments of music. In 1708 he left his native region, never to live there again, but carrying in his memory the peculiarities of the local musical folklore. He enrolled as a law student at Padua University, where he devoted most of his time, always dressed as a priest, to improving his fencing, a practice in which, according to contemporary accounts, few could compete with him. This account of Tartini’s youth has been questioned (see, for instance, Capri), but it is supported by contemporary evidence and is consistent with the later development of his personality, characterized by a fiery and stubborn temperament with a strong tendency towards mysticism. These qualities are equally evident in his writings – both letters and theoretical works – and in his compositions.
A few months after his father’s death, Tartini openly rebelled against his parents’ intentions, and on 29 July 1710 he married Elisabetta Premazore, a girl of lower social standing and two years his elder. He was then compelled to leave Padua and took refuge in the convent of S Francesco in Assisi, where he was sheltered by the superior, Padre G.B. Torre, from Pirano. There Tartini remained for at least three years, devoting himself determinedly to practising the violin, always without tuition. Although direct evidence is lacking, he probably studied composition during this period with Padre Bohuslav Černohorský, then organist of the basilica in Assisi.
With the death of Father Torre, Tartini lost his protector and was obliged to support himself as a violinist. We learn from his Trattato di musica that in 1714 he was in the orchestra of the Ancona opera house, and he claimed that it was then that he discovered the ‘terzo suono’ (combination tone), the acoustical phenomenon that was to play a fundamental role in his theoretical system as well as in his composing and playing techniques. In July 1716 he heard Veracini play at a musical academy in the Mocenigo palace in Venice, and was so impressed by his style, especially by his bow technique, that he decided to return to the Marches in order to perfect his own playing; in Carnival 1717–18 he was first violin in the opera house orchestra in Fano. His activities during the next two years are not known, but presumably involved commuting between the Veneto and the Marches in order to play in academies, church services and opera performances, as well as teaching. He was in Venice early in 1721, when he had as a pupil the young Gerolamo Ascanio Giustiniani, the future translator of the Psalms for Benedetto Marcello and the dedicatee of Tartini’s own violin sonatas published as op.1 in 1734 by Le Cène in Amsterdam.
Thanks to the intervention of Gerolamo Ascanio’s father, Tartini was appointed primo violino e capo di concerto at the basilica of S Antonio in Padua (known as ‘Il Santo’) on 16 April 1721; the proceedings of the appointments board expressly stated that Tartini was exempt from the usual examination because of his acknowledged perfection in the profession, and he was at the same time granted complete freedom to play in opera and musical academies whenever he so wished. The document is in itself proof of the high reputation Tartini had by then acquired. Taking advantage of the permission he was granted, he took part in occasional performances in Parma (1728), Bologna (1730), Camerino (1735), Ferrara (1739) and, most frequently, Venice.
In 1723 Tartini was invited by his lifelong friend and colleague, the cellist Antonio Vandini (the source of the earliest biographical information about Tartini), to join him in Prague in performances connected with the coronation of Emperor Charles VI as king of Bohemia. Tartini’s ready acceptance resulted partly from a wish to avoid a scandal about to erupt in Padua, provoked by a Venetian innkeeper who accused him of fathering her recently born child. Tartini remained for three years in Prague in the service of the Kinsky family, and enjoyed contacts there with Prince Lobkowitz’s household as well as with the musicians Fux, Caldara and S.L. Weiss. The bad climate and resulting health problems obliged him – ‘against his will’, as he said in a family letter – to return in 1726 to S Antonio in Padua, where he remained for the rest of his life.
The following year Tartini began his violin school, which soon became famous and was labelled ‘the school of the nations’ because students came to it from all over Europe. It was probably about this time that he began his relationship, mainly epistolary, with Padre Martini in Bologna, which lasted for the rest of his life. Also about this time (c1730) Le Cène of Amsterdam brought out Tartini’s first published works, 12 concertos op.1, books 1 and 3. In spite of repeated invitations from France, Germany and especially England, Tartini firmly refused to leave Padua, just as he always declined to write for the stage. Several travellers visited him: in 1739 De Brosses reported at length in his Lettres familières on the excellent impression the violinist made on him, but there is no evidence of a supposed journey to Rome in 1740. About this time Tartini suffered a stroke which partly paralysed his left arm and affected his playing. Frequent contacts with the cultural milieu in Padua, and especially with his countryman Gianrinaldo Carli, professor of astronomy at Padua University, fostered the change in Tartini’s conception of music from that of a purely abstract construction of sounds to that of an expressive language capable of moving the listeners’ affections. The discussions concerned also theoretical subjects, dealing with the physical and mathematical principles behind musical phenomena; but Tartini’s interest in – or indeed his passion for – these matters dates from much earlier, and was promoted also by the presence in Padua of two Franciscans who were maestri di cappella of the institution in which he served and also deeply involved in the same theoretical matters: Francesco Calegari, who held the office from 1703 to 1727, and his successor Francesco Antonio Vallotti.
As time went by, Tartini devoted himself less to playing and composing, concentrating his energies (apart from those used for teaching) almost exclusively on theoretical speculation. By 1750, as can be inferred from his correspondence, the text of what was to become the Trattato di musica secondo la vera scienza dell’armonia was complete, and it was circulated to the ‘learned world’ (as Tartini himself called it) to be evaluated and discussed. Padre Martini and the mathematician Lodovico Balbi, both in Bologna, were rather sceptical of the hypotheses expounded in the treatise, which was eventually published in 1754 with the financial support of Count Decio Agostino Trento, its dedicatee. Criticism continued after publication, emphasizing that it was written in a deliberately obscure style. Tartini decided therefore on a plainer and more comprehensible presentation of his ideas in his next printed treatise, De’ principi dell’armonia musicale contenuta nel diatonico genere, completed in 1764 and published in 1767. In between these publications, and even after, he wrote several shorter theoretical texts, principally to defend his convictions against attacks coming mainly from Italian mathematicians and foreign music theorists. Not all judgments were unfavourable, however; D’Alembert, in his Elémens de musique, expressed support for Tartini’s ideas, and J.-J. Rousseau took the trouble of including an extensive and thorough résumé of them in the article ‘Système’ in his Dictionnaire de musique (1768). But Rousseau’s concept of harmony was too close to Rameau’s to be acceptable to Tartini, who attacked him in what turned out to be his last published work. Another large theoretical text, Dell’armonia musicale fondata sul cerchio, remained unpublished until modern times.
Throughout his life Tartini was harassed by requests for financial help from his family in Pirano, which obliged him to devote his last years more than ever to teaching; but he was also obsessed by the incomprehension with which his theories and ideas were met. After the death of his wife, Vandini joined him to spend their last years together. Tartini died on 26 February 1770; he bequeathed his musical and theoretical manuscripts to his nephew Pietro.
PIERLUIGI PETROBELLI from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians