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Violins, Paganini and the Devil at Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome

Castel Sant’Angelo is one of my favourite spots in Rome – a beautiful fortress with a fascinating history that dominates this stretch of the Tiber in the city.

The stretch on the bridge leading up to Castel Sant’Angelo, however, is a real tourist trap, lined with buskers, artists, trinket sellers and selfie-taking tourists sometimes in their hundreds. Here we’ve stopped to listen to an amplified violin busker on the bridge.

City version:

Mark Taylor has reimagined the sound based on a fascinating story, which he explains below:

“All the music in my reimagined version was created directly from fragments of the original field recording; nothing new has been added. Various snippets of bowed and pizzicato violin were used alongside tiny grains of crowd noise that formed the percussive groove in the central section.

“To my ears, the original field recording gave the impression of everyone walking past and ignoring this highly talented busker. What if the musician decided to exact revenge in a warped, hypnotic, death-dealing twist to the performance? First of all, my distorted version creates an appropriately dark, disturbing ambience before sliding into a ‘Dance of Death’ section.

“I used a new editing environment for this one – the synthesis capabilities of Omnisphere 2. I’ve owned and used it for a few years now, but this project gave me the chance to delve more deeply into its sound design side.

The violin, of course has often been associated with Death / the Devil in music – Danse Macabre, and many more compositions.

“In folk tales, the Devil enjoys wagers – betting his own gold fiddle against the souls of his opponents. He may also bestow musical talent in exchange for a soul – a prominent part of the myth surrounding Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata.

“The great Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was the subject of various rumours that he had sold his soul, and worse: Theosophy founder Madame Helena Blavatsky included Paganini in her story The Ensouled Violin suggesting that the strings of Paganini’s violin were made from human intestine, and that his uncanny ability to mimic the human voice with his playing actually came from a spirit trapped within the instrument.”

Memory version: