article 93: OLD FAKE NEWS

Cleaning out my library yesterday, I came across a French paperback entitled “555”. I had no memory of reading or buying it, nor any clue what the title signified. This is not surprising in a septuagenarian. Naoko had to remind me that I had bought and read the thing not long ago for reasons she could not supply and I still cannot recall. It’s a novel about a hunt for unknown Scarlatti sonatas. While staring at the book, bewildered in the senior way, I ought to have connected with the number of sonatas in the Kirkpatrick catalog of the harpsichord works. But I didn’t.

Why anyone would want to record all the Scarlatti sonatas for harpsichord is beyond me. When I brought Gustav Leonhardt some Soler for a lesson, he pooh-poohed the lesser composer. “At least Scarlatti is sometimes adult.” Not really fair; there are a dozen or so fine pieces by the organist of El Escorial, and Scarlatti is “adult” quite a bit of the time – often enough to qualify as one of the Immortals. But there is a lot of trash in the corpus as well; possibly teaching pieces for his patron, the Queen of Spain, or Jugendsünde ...or just uninspired products of sweltering days in southern Europe. Domenico well knew how ephemeral most music was in his day. He was expect to produce at a certain rate, for an audience largely composed of ignoramuses.

Scott Ross did the Scarlatti recording marathon in an astounding two years for Radio France, with results I’d rather not comment on. I say this with great respect for much of his work, and even for his brilliant performance in the week-long complete cycle I helped to organize in Amsterdam for the tricentennial year 1985. World-class pianists and harpsichordists got to choose which sonatas they played; conservatory students picked up the crumbs. Total: 60 performers. My job, rewarded with the choice of ten of my favorites which I played in the Concertgebouw, was to make the distribution using a fifteen-foot-long graph taped to the office wall of a publisher, a Scarlatti maniac from whose brain the whole idea sprouted.

That brings me around to the point of this tract: a note at the back of “555” states that Scott Ross composed one of the sonatas, broadcast on 1 April 1985, “du manuscrit d’Assas”. (The chateau of Assas was where Mr. Ross lived.) It would be easy enough to compose something in Scarlatti’s style. But why do it in the first place?

I suspect that written forgeries, as distinguished from propaganda lies and “fake news”, are as old as the written word. There are probably forged cuneiform tablets, Hittite inscriptions and hieroglyphs. At the top of the List of Shame comes the Roman Catholic church with the Donation of Constantine, the most politically motivated among countless other fables. Great composers, too, have long tempted imitators who didn’t hesitate to put the name of their exemplar on the page.*

The 20th century saw some egregious examples in the field of early music, where styles, in constantly modified communication with each other and at a lower level of technical virtuosity, are simpler to copy than the individualism of the Romantics. The brothers Casadesus were the most prolific and successful charlatans. Their pieces, often concertos for instruments poorly provided for in the legitimate repertoire, were performed everywhere under the names of Mozart, Handel, C. P. E. and J. C. Bach and others. I had to play continuo in more than one back in my days of employment with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. If you want to play that Belle Époque music, go ahead, but don’t say it’s by an old master.

The motivation in their case was at least partly pecuniary. The Casadesusses played and published their own “discoveries”. But what to think of the six Haydn keyboard sonatas which allegedly turned up in an elderly lady’s attic in Münster in 1993? These started off with incipits from the composer’s own catalog, were confirmed as authentic by the most prominent Haydn scholars and recorded by the most prominent fortepianist – but were newly composed by a German recorder player. The motivations of those who rushed to judgement are easy to understand: scholarly prestige and publicity. But the composer? I could ask him; he is still among the living. But would he fake his answer?

Before graduating to the big leagues, this same scamp came to a public lesson (to avoid later denial?) with his prominent Amsterdam Conservatory recorder teacher and presented a manuscript of some unknown sonatas for their instrument. Did the maestro know them? Of course he did, he had played them in the past...except that they were composed in the weeks before by the student. So it would seem that this clever chap was motivated by a laudable desire to puncture egos and expose the bungling and lies among “experts”.

The low point in terms of 20th-century classical musical taste may have been reached with the lachrymose “Adagio” attributed by an Italian musicologist to fragments by Albinoni which he claimed to have discovered. Needless to say, the fragments were never produced, but that didn’t stop the recorded orchestration with organ and strings from spreading like an ink blot. It was the most popular piece at funerals during the years I lived in The Netherlands.

But to return to the late Mr. Ross and his fake Scarlatti sonata: what could have motivated a public deception on that scale? I simply do not know, and can only deplore. Surely the mass of genuine sonatas had not been found insufficient? The preternaturally gifted Fernando Valenti is said to have come up short by a few minutes at an LP session in 1953, and to have then improvised, as the final track, a sonata by “Padre Hippolito Fernandez” on the spot. The notes by Valenti on the fictitious composer’s life draw on his own ancestry, and close with, “The present work is distinctly in the Scarlatti style and leads us to regret exceedingly that no other music is known of this composer’s authorship.” ** Was this well done?

It must have been tempting for Kirkpatrick to round off at 555, but that number is in itself a fake, because the catalog contains violin sonatas, a couple of variants, and several poorly-sourced, highly doubtful pieces. Later discoveries of “authentic” Scarlatti sonatas are all palpable fakes. At least those were composed by near-contemporaries of the great Neapolitan.

Fake harpsichords are another endless source of consternation and amusement. The practice didn’t stop after its heyday in 19th-century Italy. I played two fakes of the late 20th by Rémy Gug in prominent locations – the castle in Bohemia where Haydn composed his first symphonies and the Villa Medici in Rome. They sounded like rubber bands stretched over a cigar box. Gug chose countries of false origin like Spain that had produced few instruments to compare with, and repeatedly conned a wealthy collector in northern Germany until he was indirectly exposed by John Koster. According to his widow, Gug committed suicide shortly before the news came out. Some suspect he faked his own death.

Even the finest builder of the 20th century, Martin Skowroneck, participated in a scheme to fool the credible. He succeeded in fooling me and countless others. The point, apparently, was to show that an exaggerated fixation on antiques is ridiculous. With that I certainly agree, if not with his method.

May 22, 2023

* A more honest, if futile, variant of this practice appears in the lamentable attempts to complete the unfinished fugue associated with Bach’s Kunst der Fuge. Some even dare to call their work a “reconstruction”. Hubris can hardly go farther. (See article 30.)

** Westminster WL 5312, re-released 1963 as W-9323 (18624). Available on YouTube at The story of the ex tempore performance is doubtless yet another fake. Valenti was an eccentric who would have enjoyed putting about such a story. The performance is clearly very well prepared, memorized from a previously-composed bit of fluff.

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