Andante Music

Music of, for and by the devil

The devil’s sonata: ‘Tartini’s Dream’ by Louis-Léopold Boilly.  

How scary could a set of two notes played after another repeatedly be? If I close my eyes and try to relive the experience of watching Jaws as a teenager in a seedy movie theatre in Kolkata with uncomfortable seats and a subpar sound system, the very first thing I remember is an underwater shot of a swimmer’s legs and the ominous two-note background music filling me up with the suggestion that something terrible was about to happen.

The music director, John Williams, masterfully used two repeated notes E and F to create the mood of anticipation of pure terror in the form of a shark, an unstoppable, single-mined, relentless force of nature intent on killing.

The score of Jaws ranks among the top 10 memorable scores in movie history according to an American Film Institute survey conducted in 2005. Jaws, made with a budget of seven million dollars, grossed close to half a billion dollars worldwide. Spielberg himself said, “I think the score was clearly responsible for half of the success of that movie.”


The devil’s tritone

Another ubiquitous scary music score based on two notes is the tritone, probably the most famous interval of them all. People have strong association of lurking evil with the sound of this musical interval, mostly because of its nickname, ‘the devil’s interval’. The tritone is a musical interval, meaning two notes played at the same time.

So why do we call it a ‘tri’-tone when we have only two pitches? The ‘tri’ refers to the three whole steps in between the two notes. As a result, the tritone interval is placed between the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth, making it a diminished fifth (with a flat) or an augmented fourth (with a sharp).

So, the devil’s tritone in the key of C major will be the note C and the note F#. The so-called perfect fifth is a consonant interval that is pleasing to our ears.

Musical pieces ending on consonant interval leaves us satisfied. The flattening of the fifth introduces dissonance that generates tension. The music feels unresolved and incomplete. As if it were looking for a consonant interval to complete itself. This yearning inherent in the devil’s tritone has been associated with temptation of the soul and may perhaps have given rise to the story that the tritone was banned by the Catholic church. A more prosaic reason could simply have been because tritones are extremely difficult to sing.


A discussion of music related to the devil will be incomplete without the mention of ‘Ave Satani’, the theme song of the supernatural horror film The Omen (1976) composed by Jerry Goldsmith. The Latin title ‘Ave Satani’ means ‘Hail Satan’. Apparently, Gerry Goldsmith’s idea was to create a Gregorian chant for the Black Mass, a ceremony where the devil is worshipped instead of the Christian god.

The song contains various interesting Latin phrases such as ‘Sanguis Bibimus’ (the blood we drink), ‘Corpus Edimus’ (the flesh we eat) and ‘Tolle Corpus Satani’ (Raise the body of Satan). The resulting lyrics are an inversion of the Roman Catholic rite of the consecration and elevation of the body and blood of Christ during the Mass.

The Omen won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, with ‘Ave Satani’ nominated for best original song, one of the few foreign language (Latin) songs ever to be nominated.


The devil’s violin

Not all music associated with the devil is scary. The devil is known to be quite a music enthusiast and an accomplished violinist.

To appreciate the fact that the devil plays the violin remarkably well for a horned and hoofed goat-faced monster, we should only listen to the ‘Devil’s Trill Sonata’ composed by Giuseppe Tartini, an 18th century Venetian Baroque composer and violinist.

The story behind the composition goes like this: Tartini in his dream made a pact with the devil for his soul. The devil fulfilled all his desires as part of the Faustian bargain. When Tartini asked the devil to play the violin for him to test his skills, the devil played the most wonderful violin sonata with such great skill and feeling that Tartini was left breathless.

When Tartini awoke he immediately wrote down the sonata, desperately trying to remember the beautiful music he had heard in his dream. Even though the sonata was his most popular composition, Tartini lamented that the piece was still far from what he had heard in his dream. What he had written was, in his own words, “so inferior to what I had heard, that if I could have subsisted on other means, I would have broken my violin and abandoned music forever.”


Johnny beats the devil

We will end with the song ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, a bluegrass song written and performed by the Charlie Daniels Band and released on their 1979 album ‘Million Mile Reflections’.

The song tells a story about what happened when the devil went to Georgia. Apparently, the devil was going through a sticky patch. He was way behind in collecting human souls when he came down to Georgia.

There the devil meets this arrogant kid Johnny one day and wants to collect the kid’s soul. He challenges Johnny to a violin playing competition. If Johnny wins, he gets a golden fiddle; if he loses, the devil gets his soul. They both play, and upon hearing Johnny’s song, the devil concedes that he has been defeated, and departs, leaving the golden fiddle with Johnny.


The music, especially the violin, is delightfully devilish.

Sudipta Bhattacharya designs big data systems to earn money, writes to make sense, and plays the classical guitar to escape drudgery.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2020 4:35:07 AM |

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