According to medieval legend, Satan selected the violin as an unholy weapon for enticing people to dance … straight into hell.
The audience should have been filled with hushed excitement that spring night in 1831 at London’s King’s Theatre as they awaited the debut of a renowned violinist. Instead, the air was marked by nervousness and fear. Ladies fanned themselves and glanced over their shoulders, while gentlemen stared fixedly ahead, crossing and uncrossing their legs. Their anxiety was born of rumors that had been spreading throughout Europe: Niccolò Paganini, the virtuoso violinist about to perform, was possessed by the devil.
The lights dimmed and a tall, hawkish figure dressed in black took the stage. Muffled screams could be heard as Paganini’s slender, grayish-white fingers grasped the neck of his violin. Then, wielding the bow like a weapon, he attacked the first chords of his opening concerto, “Il Streghe” (“The Witches”). The maestro played with wild abandon, his long black hair flying as he sweated over his wailing instrument. In a review for Athaeneum, a music critic referred to Paganini as “Zamiel” (a mythological demonic huntsman) and said of the performance, “The poor violin was a transformed victim in the demon’s hand, uttering the anguished complaints of his inflicted torture.”
If Paganini was portrayed in devilish terms, it was because he was a 19th-century manifestation of a centuries-long association between the violin and Satan. Trickster spirits like the Grecian Pan and Celtic fairies love music for the debauchery and sinful behavior it inspires in mortals — but while these mythical troublemakers are depicted with ancient instruments like flutes and drums, the Christian devil gravitated toward the comparatively modern fiddle as his musical weapon of choice. Starting in medieval Europe and threading through Baroque art all the way to the Charlie Daniels Band’s 1979 hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Paganini was hardly the first to pick up the fiddle in the name of Satan. But why were the two linked?
The answer begins with the history of the wooden string instrument. Before the rubab and rabec (two of the violin’s earliest relatives) were imported from Arabia in the 15th century, bowed instruments did not exist in Europe. (The violin as we know it today was not developed until the mid-1500s, when Italian craftsmen like Amati from Cremona and Gasparo da Salò from Salon created the first ones.) And it was precisely because the violin had Eastern origins that it also carried an association with evil. There existed, as far back as the Middle Ages, a perception of the East as sensual and uninhibited — a perception that would grow into a cultural obsession with the eroticized Orientalism of the 19th century.
But it took the medieval Christian Church condemning dance as a path to hell to forge a link between Satan and the violin. In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom proclaimed: “Where dance is found, there is the devil.” True, music has always been integral to Christian worship, but church hymns were vocal compositions, whereas secular music used myriad instruments and was composed with the explicit purpose of encouraging people to dance. The violin, because it was lightweight and easily portable, soon became a fixture at taverns and outdoor celebrations, sites of merry-making that the church condemned as frivolous, sinful and, in the case of certain festivals, pagan.
“The idea that wildness and dancing leads to fornication and just generally enjoying yourself was more accepted in pre-Christian society, where music and religious festivities were tightly connected,” says author and podcast producer Frederick Greenhalgh, whose “Day of the Dead” drama was inspired by the Orpheus myth. “[In the Christian worldview], virtue was associated with denying yourself pleasures.”
If, therefore, medieval Catholic saints— and the townspeople in the 1984 film Footloose — were correct that Satan could be summoned through music, it follows that Mephistopheles would appear as a musician enticing people into sin.
The image of Satan as a fiddler took off during the Baroque period, beginning around 1600. When Thomas Balthazar played in England in 1655, a music professor at Oxford reportedly stooped down to inspect the German virtuoso’s feet to make sure they weren’t cloven hooves. Later, “Devil’s Trill Sonata,” which dates from 1740, was said to have been composed by Giuseppe Tartini after he woke from a fevered dream in which the Devil played him a solo “so singularly beautiful and executed with such superior taste and precision, that it surpassed all he has ever heard or conceived in his life,” wrote 18th-century French astronomer and music enthusiast Jérôme Lalande.
And more recently, the trope of a musician making a deal with the devil lives in the legend of Robert Johnson, a Mississippi bluesman born in 1911 who allegedly encountered Satan at a crossroads and sold his soul in exchange for boundless talent.
Adding to this myth-making was the belief during Paganini’s time that certain violins were “ensouled” with the spirits of dead women whose intestines were used to make the strings. When played, these enchanted instruments were said to produce the screams of trapped souls, not music. The G string of Paganini’s violin, in fact, was rumored to have been made from the innards of a woman he’d murdered.
By the 1960s and ’70s, it was time for the devil to update his image by laying down the fiddle and picking up the electric guitar. From the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” to Black Sabbath’s album We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’n’ Roll, the groups’ overt emphasis on Satan was unmistakable — once again inciting panic among the pious. Were those rockers the 20th-century equivalents of Paganini, musicians taken by dark forces that lured their fans into sin? Or were these fortissimo virtuosos so spellbinding that their skills could have come only from another realm? Hark, the music begins …