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faking it

We look at classical music’s best hoaxes, infamous frauds, blunders and mis-attributions.

Fritz Kreisler

Fritz Kreisler is considered one of the greatest violinists in history and has been idolized for years for the uniqueness of his interpretations. In the twenties, Fritz Kreisler passed off some “Classical manuscripts” he claimed to have found “in various European libraries” as works by 18th-century composers such as Couperin, Vivaldi, Pugnani, Ditters von Dittersdorf and others.

He was never rumbled, and delighted making fools of experts. It was not until 1935 that he finally admitted that this was his pseudonym. Why do such a thing? Kreisler was deeply concerned about the opinion the critics would have about his work as a composer, since it would be “impudent and tactless to repeat my name endlessly on the programmes.” Kreisler and his friends managed to keep the secret for decades, and he relished sending up the “snobs” of the musical world “who judge merely by name.” Nowadays most people know what real Dittersdorf, Pugnani, Couperin and Vivaldi sound like (and it was pretty far from what Kreisler imagined – sorry Fritz).

The cagey Casadesus family

The Casedesus family were prominent members of the Parisian music scene, and indeed prominent members of the international arts landscape. Violinist Robert Casdesus is probably most famous for his collaboration with Ravel and playing private duets with Albert Einstein. But it was is uncles’ – Marius, Francis and Henri – lively musical imaginations which brought them fame (or notoriety).

In 1931, Marius Casadesus presented the Alélaïde Concerto for Violin, which Mozart supposedly wrote at the age of 10 for Louis XV’s eldest daughter, Adélaïde. The critics were sceptical and asked to see an original copy or a manuscript, which the violinist was unable to produce – Marius would not let anyone see the manuscript, but said it was dated ‘Versailles, 26 May 1766’ in Mozart’s handwriting (that gave him away, as the Mozart family didn’t arrive at Versailles until two days later).

It wasn’t until 1977 that Marius Casadesus admitted to being the author of the Adélaïde Concerto for Violin. It took a dispute over copyright for the musician to own up. And yet the violinist had planned everything and even inserted his work in the Köchel catalogue. The Adélaïde Violin Concerto has actually entered the repertoire and is still occasionally played.

Marius’ brother Henri also had a cagey contribution to make, this time in 1947 when a newly-discovered viola concerto by Johann Christian Bach was published to the great excitement of the viola-playing world.

Henri – who “made the discovery” was a conductor and composer, a viola player in the legendary Capet Quartet and a player and advocate of viola d’amore. He also collected obsolete instruments, the collection now held by Boston Symphony Orchestra. With his friend Camille Saint-Saëns he established the “Société des instruments anciens”, a quintet who made a name for themselves dredging up and performing long-lost compositions. The group included four of the eight Casadesus siblings.

With two brothers, Marius (the violinist who premiered Ravel’s Tzigane) and Francis (a student of César Franck), Henri “unearthed” several of significant musical works including:

CPE Bach Viola Concerto in D major, published 1912
Handel Viola Concerto in B minor, published 1924
CPE Bach Suite for String Quartet, published 1931
Boccherini Violin Concerto in D major G486

Let’s just say a healthy and impressive imagination ran in the family.

An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin

An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin by Rohan Kriwaczek discussed the much-maligned art of Funerary Violin; the solo playing for the dead that was – until the church stamped on it – an important part of life. It’s about the transition into death, the reminder of mortality for the living, and the persecution of an entire group of musicians at the behest of the Vatican.

It’s a great piece of musical reportage and history, except for one small problem: none of it ever happened.

Exposed by the New York times as a “brilliant hoax,” this imaginative volume of fiction is presented as a scholarly history of a secretive art form: “the rise, flourishing, and ruthless suppression of a tradition of [solo] violin music played at funerals.” It includes detailed fictional biographies of real or invented persons, alleged “period” illustrations, and elaborate musical scores.

But while some falsified writing might be decried as literary fraud – as was the case with James Frey and his A Million Little Pieces debacle – Kriwaczek turned the tables on both popular history and the literary tradition. An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin can be likened to the “Blair Witch” film series, with fiction written to be presented as ‘fact’ only as an element of the story. While never explicitly stated within the book, the idea of its less than factual origins can be found is subtle jabs at modern day history and quietly humorous and altogether unlikely scenarios – such as a member of the Guild of Funerary Violinists suffering an untimely death due in large to having tripped over an old cat – are small hints at its being entirely fictional.

But the fact that the funerary violin is a fake is really beside the point: Kriwaczek’s book is a feat of pseudo-scholarly invention and musical-literary virtuosity that makes you wish that the Guild of Funerary Violinists really did exist.

Lost Haydn Sonatas

In December 1993 a grand discovery was made. Six “lost” piano sonatas were unearthed, discovered by Winifred Michel, a German music teacher from Münster. To make the lie more believable, he claimed that the manuscripts, once lost, had recently resurfaced.

And in January 1994 Robbins Landon endorsed them in BBC Music Magazine, claiming that they “clarify in a peculiarly striking way Haydn’s search for a new musical language of strength and beauty which was to emerge as the beginning of the Viennese Classical style”.

Robbins Landon was one of the 20th-century’s greatest advocate of the music of Haydn and one of the editors of The Mozart Companion. In putting his weight behind the authenticity of six “lost” piano sonatas by Haydn, He became embroiled in one of the big forgery stories of the 1990s.

Michel’s original point of contact, the pianist and scholar Paul Badura-Skoda was also astonished by the discovery: “The sonatas you sent me are so original and contain so many unexpected and surprising turns that I feel quite sure that Haydn is the composer.”

In no time at all, however, they had become “a rather sinister forgery” (Landon’s words). Upon closer examination the handwriting appeared to date from the 20th-century. The engraving had probably been done with a steel-nibbed pen, something that only came into use in the 19th-century. The staves were peculiar, and so on.

In The New York Times, journalist Michael Berkerman commented on the affair of the piano sonatas falsely attributed to the Austrian composer.
”Nor has anybody raised the potent question: if someone can write pieces that can be mistaken for Haydn, what is so special about Haydn?”

Harry’s and Megan’s wedding

Just after the Dean of Windsor’s blessing, 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason played a Sicilienne. Decca lists the piece as being written by Austrian pianist and composer Maria Theresia von Paradis. While she wrote a tremendous amount of music that is being deservedly brought to light these days, she didn’t pen this little gem.

Violinist Samuel Dushkin claimed to have discovered the piece in the 1920s and said it was a lost work by von Paradis, a composer who lived in Vienna in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Curiously, Dushkin produced no manuscript to substantiate his claim, but it was quickly published and for decades celebrated as a piece by von Paradis. While it’s impossible to prove a negative, music scholars have recently and convincingly argued that Dushkin wrote the piece himself.

This isn’t the only time Dushkin pulled this kind of stunt. He attributed one of his own violin compositions to Johann Georg Benda.

Alcoholic and Syphilitic Composers?

Above is a portrait of Mozart from 1790, by Johan Georg Edlinger. Edlinger has painted a puffy Mozart, a bloated and greying Mozart, his face seemingly plagued by the effects of alcoholism.

The portrait was completed a year before Mozart’s death, and so the rumours began; Mozart’s swollen face and reddened cheeks being taken as proof by some biographers of the supposed alcoholism of the genius musician. The so-called “Edlinger Mozart” can be seen now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.
But a book released in 2014 by retired British surgeon Dr Jonathan Noble suggests the Austrian composer has been unfairly maligned by his biographers and did not have a serious drinking problem at all. In That Jealous Demon: My Wretched Health, Noble demystifies all the post-mortem reports and medical notes based on gossip that attributed alcoholism to Mozart.

He said in an article in The Telegraph, that he found no evidence of any of the health issues associated with a serious drinking problem, concluding that claims of Mozart’s alcoholism have “little foundation.” What he did find was a propensity among biographers to link musicians to certain diagnoses like alcohol abuse and venereal diseases without actual proof. “Alcoholism is inconsistent with serious, sustained musical composition. (…) If you’re a true alcoholic, there’s no way you can go around composing operas, symphonies or string quartets.”

“I started out really writing about illnesses and trying to find out what these composers actually did die of, but it soon became apparent many didn’t have any diagnosis, and their conditions were just hearsay,” he said. Dr Noble said he found no evidence to suggest that Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Brahms, or Beethoven were alcoholics – or syphilitic, despite claims by biographers.

Neither does he believe that Maurice Ravel had syphilis, Dr Noble discovered that claims about Ravel were based purely on the word of a nurse who said she had seen his blood report years after his death.

Benjamin Britten has also been unfairly maligned with both alcoholism and syphilis. When Dr Noble was given access to Benjamin Britten’s medical notes he discovered he had a diseased heart valve, not syphilis. “For a doctor to neglect to mention a diagnosis of syphilis or not consult a specialist on the matter would be tantamount to malpractice,” he said. “It’s more likely, on the balance of probabilities, that he simply didn’t have it.” Britten’s doctor also told Dr Noble that his patient had acquired the reputation as an alcoholic from one cardiologist “largely on the basis of being an artistic type who liked a stiff drink before dinner.”

In the introduction to the book, the author states: “Many composers’ reputations have been sullied. An objective attempt is made herein to do justice to their reputations.”

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