Fritz Kreisler a composé des pièces qu'il attribuait aux plus grands compositeurs ©AustrianArchives
Fritz Kreisler a composé des pièces qu'il attribuait aux plus grands compositeurs ©AustrianArchives

The six best hoaxes in classical music

Between false compositions, faked recordings and copycat composers, classical music has seen its fair share of hoaxes over the centuries. And there may well be more in store: the last hoax came to light only in 2007.

Classical music has seen quite a few cases of hoaxes, forgeries and plain dishonesty, some of which have been described by The Guardian. This anthology of jokes spans the centuries, from Mozart to Kreisler and a certain Piotr Zak. Which just goes to show that jokes, good or bad, have always been around...

The Joyce Hatto scandal

Joyce Hatto is a British pianist who was born in 1928 and died nine years ago. After a mediocre career during which critics questioned her ability to play certain pieces properly, the pianist developed a cancer and went into seclusion. But she did not give up music entirely: she continued to play the piano in a small recording studio, tasking her husband with selling the recorded CDs. For William Barrington-Coupeen, head of the English label Concert Artist Recordings, there was nothing simpler.

The recordings, which dated from the 1990s, were very good... almost too good? Classical music critics began raising doubts in 2006. Had the pieces on the recordings really been played by the ill pianist Joyce Hatto?

A year after the musician's death in 2007, the affair came to light. Her husband confessed the whole business in a letter: he had modified his wife's recordings and used snippets from recognised pianists to conceal Joyce Hatto's wrong notes and weaknesses. Was it a gesture of love or the worst scam in the twentieth century? One thing is certain: he managed to sell almost 100 of the CDs falsely attributed to his wife.

Who wrote Mozart's Requiem?

No, the version depicted in the film Amadeus by Miloš Forman is not what really happened with Mozart’s famous Requiem. In the official version, no Salieri,  no mysterious messenger announcing the poor composer's imminent demise, but a count, Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach, who was madly in love with his wife, Anna, and accustomed to deceitful dealings in the world of music. He pretended to compose musical works, but in fact simply copied out existing scores.

When Count Walsegg's young wife died, he commissioned the promising composer Mozart to write a Requiem to honour her memory. The young composer was growing weak and had other scores to finish, but set to the task.

Mozart never finished his Requiem. His wife Constanze stepped in and asked Joseph Eybler to finish the score, but he completed only a few lines. It was actually Mozart's former pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr who finished the work, with the help of notes left by his master. The Count didn't notice a thing and gave Constanze a large sum, which she needed desperately.

"Mobile for Tape and Percussion"

Have you heard of the composer Piotr Zak? The one who composed Mobile for Tape and Percussion? No? Not surprising: Piotr Zak is an entirely fictitious composer invented by Hans Keller and Susan Bradshaw for the BBC.

The story goes back to June 1961, when the BBC presenter announced a piece by a young and promising Polish composer, Piotr Zak, entitled Mobile for Tape and Percussion and played by Claude Tessier and Anton Schmidt.

Behind the scenes, it was no other than the musician Hans Keller and the pianist Susan Bradshaw, hitting various instruments in an attempt to make experimental music. Two months afterwards, the BBC admitted that the broadcast of the recording was a hoax. The idea, for the radio, was to show that critics - a handful of whom responded more or less positively to the piece - were sometimes taken in by avant-garde music.

Fritz Kreisler: an overly modest violinist?

The Austrian-born American virtuoso had a brilliant career, interspersed with periods devoted to medicine or the army. In the early twentieth century, the violinist gave series of concerts that included small pieces by the great composers, such as Vivaldi, Couperin or Pugnani.

However the pieces were found not to be by the composers mentioned but by the virtuoso himself. Why hide this talent? Fritz Kreisler replied that it would have been "impudent and tactless to repeat my name endlessly on the programmes". 

But the other reason for this unorthodox procedure was to fool the critics, who were incapable of detecting that the works played were not, in fact, pieces by the most renowned composers in classical music.

Marius Casadesus steps in for Mozart

In 1931, Marius Casadesus, from the well-known family of musicians, 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.

It was only in 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 authoritative catalogue of all of Mozart's compositions).

The fake Haydn piano sonatas

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

Winfried Michel, who created the fakes, managed to persuade academics that the six piano sonatas he had secretly composed were nothing other than the work of Haydn. To make the lie more believable, he claimed that the manuscripts, once lost, had recently resurfaced.

The affair, which dates back to the 1990s, once again casts doubt on the ability of some critics to distinguish between works actually written by the purported composers and those written by admittedly skilful imitators, as Winfied Michel showed.

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