The information about St Anthony, Padua and Tartini is largely derived from:

Tartini and the Tongue of Saint Anthony Author(s): Pierpaolo Polzonetti Source: Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Summer 2014), pp. 429486 Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the American Musicological Society Stable URL: .


One of the principal themes of this exploration of “Musical Theology” is the idea that Music has meaning and value as music itself – it is a language which has abstract meaning, in the combination of many elements, a parallel to grammar, and can also express meaning through feeling.

Pure music, without words, deals with pure meaning.


Instrumental music seems not to have been valued until the late Renaissance. Philosophers (I am thinking of James Harris) even in the eighteenth century could write of music having value or meaning principally as a support for words, providing an expressive background in which the meaning of the words could be better received and understood. But by the mid-eighteenth century non-vocal music had developed complex abstract forms, assumed to be of value in themselves, and also forms which were intended to convey a meaning, or illustrate a meaning.

From the 16th century there were instrumental pieces which told a story by imitation – battles, or bells, or meteorological effects, and later in the 17th century there were pieces that were supposed to tell a story, like Kuhnau’s sonatas on biblical stories. These include imitation, battles, marches, and a succession of emotional moods.

Far more sophisticated are Biber’s Rosary sonatas, which use all kinds of devices to create intensely expressive music that can be used as form of meditation on the 15 mysteries of the Rosary.

These works draw attention to the expressive power of music, but they do not necessarily convey the idea that music has a value and meaning in itself, as an expression of the harmonies and rhythms that hold the universe together. This study, as a whole, aims to make a purely personal case, just one view amongst many possible views, for music as a way of working with the fundamental principles of Nature, understanding the harmony at the root of everything, and understanding the way many parts combine to form new wholes. This is, quite clearly, a parallel with the attitudes of some mystical or magical operations. I am not one to claim it is more real than any other art.

So, I would suggest that music is a universal language, not as a language to convey a specific meaning, bit as a language which conveys the formative principles of Nature, conveys, perhaps, archetypal qualities which are present in all Nature, and which seeks a sense of unity, or what Duns Scotus might have called Quiddity, in trying to be a thing in itself. And some of the most meaningful music conveys this sense of potential truth or unity by being imperfect – like people.

Perhaps St Anthony of Padua could be seen as the patron saint of Music as a Universal Language.

St Anthony, (1195-1231) was a contemporary of St Francis and one of his most important early followers. He was famous as an eloquent preacher. As St Francis preached to the birds, St Anthony preached to the fish. (Both stories have resonances of stories about Pythagoras, whose philosophy came from his cosmic understanding of harmony.)

It might seem rather odd to people who are not used to the tradition of relics that there is a special chapel devoted to St Anthony’s tongue at Padua Cathedral. This represents the saint’s power of communications. His tongue spoke to everyone, even the fish, as if he conveyed true meaning even if the words were not understood.

As Pierpaolo Polzonetti (see the reference above) explains, this relic became a focus of spectacular musical celebrations. By the 18th century Padua had some of the finest church music in Europe. Polzonetti suggests that music had become more and more expressive and dramatic in the catholic church since the Counter Reformation as Latin ceased to be a lingua franca, a common tongue. All the most modern devices of music, particularly from opera, could be used in church music, to engage the feelings and imaginations of worshippers. Oratorio, from the 17th century, could tell biblical stories in a style which is identical to opera. This was a catholic tradition long before Handel (from the 1730s) adapted to suit English audiences.

What is interesting and unusual about Padua is that it began to make a feature of purely instrumental music. An understanding developed that music without words was in itself valid as a form of worship. (Which, if music is understood as growing from the harmonies within Nature, must be true of all instrumental music, of any kind – unless it exists only as an accompaniment to potentially lewd dance and for purely sensual pleasure, which had been a worry for some religious writers centuries before instrumental music developed into a sophisticated language.)


The leading musician at Padua Cathedral was Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), who was violin soloist there from 1721 to 1765. His concertos were an important feature of the worship in devotion to St Anthony’s tongue. This connection of Tartini with the cathedral puts the composer’s career in a very clear and possibly unexpected light.

Tartini is remembered as a virtuoso and teacher. He taught many violinists from all over Europe. His school was known as “The School of Nations.” He was a very influential musician, but his music is little known. Misleadingly his most famous work is “The Devil’s Trill Sonata” which is associated with a story of diabolically difficult music which Tartini had heard the devil play in a dream. This is a complete distortion of the story that Tartini told. What Tartini heard in his dream was not devilish fiddling but something exquisitely beautiful which the composer feared he would never be able to reproduce. Tartini had a more sophisticated understanding temptation than pantomime devils. Perhaps it had more to do with vanity and pride.

He was a virtuoso but he was also a mystic, with largely impenetrable ideas of the mathematical basis of harmony. At the time of his connection with the cathedral and St Anthony his aim in music was not to be showy but to find simplicity and expression. He wrote many solo pieces for himself to play, and these use folk songs (the songs of Venetian gondoliers) and some scores have poetry noted in them which he aimed to communicate in music alone. In his writings he stated his belief that the simplest folk melodies could be more expressive than intellectual compositions, and more like the ideal of Ancient Greek music, which was said to have a direct effect on the listener’s emotions.

Tartini’s musical ideals are clearly related to the ideas of universal communication associated with St Anthony’s tongue. They are also very Franciscan.

He was never a member of a Franciscan order himself – unless he was a Tertiary – but was connected with the Franciscans most of his life. His parents, in Venice, wanted him to be a Franciscan friar, but Tartini married. His wife was a favourite of a local Cardinal, who objected to the marriage so Tartini went to Assisi and learned the violin there. He was either taught by, or taught himself, a Bohemian Franciscan composer, Cernohorsky. Eventually he came to Padua, started his school and his involvement with the cathedral.

It is unlikely that Tartini and the friars at Padua were aware that there was a very old Franciscan tradition of valuing music in itself as conveying meaning. From the 13th century Franciscans considered the kind of music used in chants was as important in conveying the meaning of a mass as the words. (See MODES AND MUSES). These ideas go back to St Francis’s time. He probably really did play an air-violin.


The implication of all this is that music in itself is sacred. Harmony is an aspect of the divine law in Nature, and Music demonstrates the principles of formation, creativity.

Music can be used for sacred purposes, in any kind of worship or liturgy but there is always a possibility that words can obscure the value of the music itself. Music is always sacred. Joseph Haydn understood this. All his composing was an act of worship, in discovering and celebrating the divine I Nature.

I have a personal prejudice against adding words to a piece of music to explain a meaning. Of course there are wonderful things that do this, or try to describe something particular in music. I do believe the quality of something can be translated into music.  It would, though, seem, to me, to be almost immoral to label a piece of music with a sacred title as if this might give it some added value. This is rather like trying to convert someone by telling them what they should believe rather than showing love. As St Francis probably didn’t say of preaching “use words if necessary.”

The words are not necessary because music is the laboratory of Nature. It’s about the sacred language in everything. This is universal and beyond our personal prejudices, the various differences of style and culture, and any particular religious traditions. If we really believe in the divine in the world we should be confident enough to explore it according to our abilities and natures but without the limitations of words.