26 October 2016

Musical Hoaxes

It’s funny how these things go.  Only yesterday morning I was lecturing to my students about National Anthems and drawing their attention to the blatant musical hoax which is the Bosnian-Herzegovinian anthem.  And now, today, a disc for review has arrived which includes another unashamedly bare-faced musical hoax, the setting of the Ave Maria passed off by its real composer, Vladimir Vavilov (1925-1973) as the work of Giulio Caccini (1551-1618).

Musical hoaxes and misattributions are the stuff of musical quizzes.  Who wrote Haydn’s “Toy Symphony”? (answer; Leopold Mozart).  Who wrote Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary? (answer; Jeremiah Clarke).  Who wrote Albinoni’s Adagio? (answer; Remo Giazotto).  But for many people, when they learn that they have been duped by a musical hoax or led to believe that a work is by one composer when, in fact, it is by another, they bristle with resentment and end up ignoring music which, up to that point, they had thoroughly enjoyed

One of the great musical hoaxers was Fritz Kreisler who managed to pull sufficient wool over the eyes of sufficient numbers of gullible music lovers to convince them that his own works were really the products of composers ranging from Couperin to Boccherini by way of one of the Bach family and an otherwise forgotten composer called Gaetano Pugnani.  There are plenty of others, too.  Wikipedia delightfully tells us that Vavilov “routinely ascribed his own works to other composers, usually of the Renaissance or Baroque (occasionally from later eras), usually with total disregard of the appropriate style”.  Yet, despite Wikipedia’s assertion that “his works achieved enormous circulation, and some of them achieved true folk-music status, with several poems set to his melodies”, Grove does not deign to give this Soviet-era forger even a passing mention.

In the case of Kreisler, his hoaxes were designed to give credibility to his own performances.  With Vavilov, there was also an element of self-preservation.  Writing at a time and in a society where Christian music was forbidden, he had no choice but to pass his Ave Maria off as the work of someone else; although that does not justify all the other hoaxes he carried out.  As for Dusan Sestic, who stole the theme music from the 1978 movie Animal House to enter a competition for a new national anthem for Bosnia-Herzegovina, his aim was solely financial; he stood to earn over €15,000 for his efforts.

Others seem to have been exercises to test the gullibility of critics like myself.  In the wake of the spoof Mobile for Tape and Percussion by "Piotr Zak" (actually Hans Keller) I was less willing to accept the minimalist music of Arvo Pärt at first sight, and in a Musical Times review went so far as to suggest his Pari Intervalli was a spoof.  Daniel Hill (Musical Forgeries) has written an extensive dissertation on the subject, which makes for stimulating reading – not least his conclusion that “Let us enjoy the forgeries as music”.  He drew attention to the great hoax of recent years, the discovery of eight apparently lost Haydn piano sonatas by the Australian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda and the renowned Haydn scholar H C Robbins Landon.  “A little old lady who `couldn't be disturbed' had `discovered' the completed versions of the sonatas in her home. She in turn passed them to a relatively unknown flautist, Winfried Michel. Michel became the only link between the source of the documents and the Haydn scholar, Robbins Landon”. Both Robbins Landon and Badura-Skoda were totally convinced, and only when someone thought to analyse the paper, the ink and the actual writing did they realise they had been entirely written in the late 20th century.  As Hill points out, having been regarded as the “musical discovery of the century…once proved to be forgeries, the Sonatas vanished from the public domain”.  Which, of course, begs the question; what matters most, the music or the provenance?  Why should we give less credence to the Ave Maria once we know it is by a 20th century Soviet composer than when we thought it was by a 16th century Italian one?

In these days of Photoshop, digital re-alignment and total belief in the truth of whatever is published on the internet, we cannot really know what is real and what is fake, but perhaps this does not matter?  Surely if we like the music, who wrote it, when it was written and the motives behind its composition should not concern us.  I can understand why the Bosnians want their prize money back from Sestic, but I really cannot understand why fake Haydn is any less enjoyable than real Haydn or why spoof Zak should be regarded as a joke while real Cage is taken so seriously.


  1. Now its about time we dug up those unknown pieces by "Schubert","Reger","A.Dupre", "Zemlinsky", and best of all "Hans Poser", that were played by the late Ong Lip Tat (and which were so well received by audiences) in his piano recitals. He was a pianist-composer in the truest sense.

  2. This brings to mind the story an organist once told. The parishioners were complaining that he "played too much Bach". Thereafter, the prelude and postlude Often featured music of "John Brook". The congregation was appeased and the joke was on them. The wrong perspective and personal convictions can be dangerously misleading.

    Lovely to see you at the Schiff concert, Dr Marc.