Death has often been personified in art, literature and poetry. The most common image that comes to mind would be The Grim Reaper. But through a lot of history, a skeletal figure playing the violin, or indeed the violin (or fiddle) itself, has been the emblem of death. How and why is this?
The violin has long been seen as “the devil’s instrument”; the “devil as fiddler” theme crops up in folklore. The modern violin as we know it evolved in the 1500s, and when used as a folk instrument often accompanied dancing, which was frowned upon in the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Dancing itself (and therefore the violin by association) was regarded as the “work of the devil”. In the Renaissance period, the violin as Death’s (or the Devil’s) accessory appears in paintings.
The seemingly superhuman skill required to play the violin to a virtuosic level led to the concept of having made a “pact or deal with the devil” (as in Goethe’s Faust and Mephistopheles). A famous case in point is Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). Rumours abounded that he had sold his soul to the Devil, or indeed was Satan incarnate; even that the used the “guts of murdered women” to string his violin! There is no evidence that Paganini started these rumours, but he seems to have done little to dispel them. His career benefited from such rumours, as people flocked to hear and watch him, often paying huge sums of money. In England a children’s rhyme ran: “Who are these/Who pay five guineas/To hear a tune of Paganini’s? Pack o’ ninnies.”
But it was on account of these rumours, and the fact that he hadn’t received the last sacrament before his death (when he was offered it, Paganini felt it was premature, and he died a week later before a priest could be found), he was denied a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took five years and a Papal appeal to allow his body to be laid to rest appropriately.
Another virtuoso violinist-composer had a different association with the Devil: Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) apparently dreamt he had made a pact with the Devil for his soul. He then gave his violin to the Devil, and heard “a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, and played with great art and intelligence”. Upon waking, he tried in vain to write it all down, but even what he did remember was “the best I ever wrote”, which he called the “Devil’s Trill”, a concert favourite of violinists everywhere. True or not, it’s a good publicity story.
Saint-Saëns’ tone poem for orchestra Danse Macabre is based on an old French superstition: Death summons the dead from their graves every year on Halloween midnight, playing his fiddle (represented by solo violin in the tone poem, tuned down (scordatura) to play the ‘devilish’ tritone) as he does so. The skeletons (represented by xylophone) dance for him until dawn, and then return to their graves only to emerge the following year at the same time.
Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in its scherzo second movement also employed a solo violin with scordatura tuning, but with strings tuned higher than usual. It gives a ghostly hue to the representation of Freund Hein (“Friend Henry”), the skeletal German personification of death (invented by poet Matthias Claudius). Freund Hein also plays a “danse macabre” or Totentanz, (in this case Mahler’s scherzo movement) “tempting his flock to follow him out of this world.” Mahler’s inspiration for this was taken from and 1872 painting “Self-Portrait with Death playing the Fiddle” by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin.
It’s a haunting painting: the artist seems to be listening intently as the menacing, maniacally smiling skeletal figure of Death playing the violin whispers something in his ear. A bony hand grips the bow while it plays on one lone string, a reminder of “time running out”. Death seems to have “outplayed” Böcklin, who seems to realise that this self-portrait will “outlive” him, living on long after his death. The space is cramped, as if there is room just for Death and him, nothing else. Böcklin is flesh and blood as he paints, and we get a sense of this as he thrusts his palette “out of the painting” into our space, mixing paints almost in real time; but he will eventually be reduced to a skeleton himself. The rag in the painting that he used to wipe his brush seems to represent how Death will “wipe” us all out of existence.
Böcklin had become obsessed with Death after the tragic demise of his infant daughter Maria, and this must certainly have struck a chord with Mahler, who shared this preoccupation with Death. He lost eight siblings in their childhood, and lost his parents and sister in the space of one year; this obsession would only intensify in his later years, seeping increasingly into his music.
“The Devil went down to Georgia” is a fast-paced bluegrass song about the Devil’s unsuccessful attempt to steal the soul of a young man named Johnny, in a fiddle-playing contest. If the Devil wins, he gets Johnny’s soul; if he loses, Johnny gets a golden fiddle. Sounds like a terrible deal, if you ask me. Who’d want to play on a metal fiddle, gold or otherwise? Anyway, Johnny emerges triumphant, singing “Cause I told you once, you son of a gun, I’m the best that’s ever been”.
The melody (“Lonesome Fiddle Blues”) was originally written by American jazz, swing and bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, and adapted to the more popular song by the Charles Daniels band.
A thrilling sequel to the song features on Marc O’Connor’s album Heroes, with guest performances by Travis Tritt (the devil), Marty Stuart (Johnny) and with Johnny Cash as narrator. Johnny is now grown and still has his golden fiddle, and is challenged by the Devil to a rematch on account of Johnny’s “sinful pride”. It’s not clear who wins, but the line “Johnny’s still the best that’s ever been” seems to say it all.
(An edited version of this article was published on 15 November 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)