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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

It Ain't Necessarily So

In Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess there's a shady character called Sportin' Life. He gets the second-most famous song in the piece (after "Summertime", of course), where he casts doubt on some ideas which would have been taken as gospel truth by others. The song, "It Ain't Necessarily So", is a gem, and its first line has provided me with the title and underlying idea for this post.

Those of us who love music often pick up stories or ideas which we innocently believe to be true. Sometimes a bit of history has been mangled over the years to result in a myth, sometimes a charlatan has misrepresented the facts, and sometimes we just find out something makes us realise we had the wrong end of the stick. It's all a natural part of our ongoing and, I hope, lifelong process of education. In this article I want to look at a few ideas which come under these headings and sort out some facts from the myths.

Let's start with one of the most famous pieces in the world. [listen]

JS Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV565 is possibly the most famous piece of Baroque organ music there is, and certainly one of the most recognisable pieces by Bach. It has long been a favourite of audiences and organists, but it’s now widely-believed that there is not a lot of evidence to support the idea that Bach actually wrote it.

Many scholars now doubt Bach's authorship, but some go even further to suggest that the organ version we know may be an arrangement of a lost original which was not even an organ piece, and that this may not even have been in D minor. It is unlike any other of Bach's organ works, and there is no surviving score in Bach's hand or even from his lifetime. The earliest known copies date from the late 18th century and these suggest that it was tampered with or modernised in accordance with the taste of later times. Still, it may be a one-off, a sort of experiment like Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, but the fact is we don't really know.

What has struck many musicologists about the piece is the fact that much of the organ writing seems to be better-suited to the violin, with passages reminiscent of string crossings and alternation of stopped notes and open strings. When we recall that such pieces did exist for solo violin (for example, the famous Biber solo passacaglia), the idea that the toccata and fugue for organ may be an arrangement of a lost original for solo violin has gained much support.

Here is Andrew Manze playing his own reconstruction of the piece for solo violin, transposed into A minor. As he says, it makes no claims to authenticity, but it is a fascinating example of what might have been. [listen]

Andrew Manze

Of course, over the past three centuries there has been a lot of solo music created for the violin; viola players, though, haven't been so lucky. (As an ex viola player, I know this all too well!) There have been some notable works for viola over the years, of course, but only a fraction of the amount of music written for violin (or cello, for that matter).

Enter Henri Casadesus, a French viola player and music publisher who lived between 1879 and 1947. Casadesus had a keen interest in early music, and the quartet in which he played revived allegedly lost and forgotten works by long-dead composers. Later these works were found to have been actually composed by Casadesus, or his younger brother Marius.

Henri Casadesus (c. 1900)

On a couple of occasions Henri Casadesus wrote his own viola concertos, passing them off as recent discoveries of lost and unknown works. One was purported to be by Handel, the other by JC Bach, and for many years much of the musical world was fooled. When William Primrose recorded the alleged Handel concerto in 1946 [listen] it was still believed to be an authentic Handel work. It's now kindly described by some as being "in the style of Handel", while others are less charitable and simply call it a forgery. [listen]

Marius Casadesus (and not Henri) was responsible for another famous forgery, the so-called "Adelaide" violin concerto which was claimed to have been written by the ten year old Mozart. It was published in 1933 with Casadesus claiming to be the “editor” of the work. The title comes from a note which was supposed to be on the score dedicating the work to Adelaide, eldest daughter of Louis XV. Despite the fact that the original manuscript was never able to be examined by Mozart scholars, many were fooled. One must admit that unlike Henri's attempts at emulating Handel and JC Bach (which are completely unconvincing to anyone with a decent knowledge of those composers), Marius's copying of the young Mozart's style is pretty convincing. Only in 1977, four years before he died, did Casadesus finally admit that he’d composed the work himself.

What is particularly fascinating is that many recordings of this work, even relatively recent ones, make no mention of Casadesus, labelling the work as authentic Mozart. Clearly some people don't do their homework. [listen]

One of the works which can lay claim to being among the best-loved of "Baroque classics" is the work known as Tomaso Albinoni's Adagio in G minor for organ and strings. It's been used many times in film and television (including Peter Weir's Gallipoli) and it has a simple directness which makes it tug at the heart strings.

The only issue is that it's not by Albinoni, despite what you read on recording labels. The work was published in 1958 and it was claimed to be a "reconstruction" by the Italian composer Remo Giazotto, based on a fragment of a bass line by Albinoni. This fragment was supposed to have been discovered among the ruins of the Saxon State Library in Dresden after the second world war and thus the Adagio became a sort of lament for the destruction of Europe and of war in general. Only the bassline was ever alleged to have been by Albinoni; the melody and the scoring were claimed from the start to be Giazotto's work.

Giazotto died in 1998 and since then it has been shown that no such Albinoni fragment was ever found or listed as having been part of the library's collection. It's therefore now assumed that the entire Albinoni connection is fictitious and that the whole piece - bassline and all - is a bit of neo-Baroque confectionery entirely composed by Giazotto. [listen]

Remo Giazotto

It should be said that Giazotto was no amateur. He had serious academic credentials as the author of a thematic catalogue of Albinoni’s works, as well as being a respected composer and critic. He also wrote biographies of Albinoni and Antonio Vivaldi.

There are many works from earlier times which are still the subject of some dispute regarding their authorship. The alleged Bach Toccata and Fugue I referred to earlier is one. The piece often referred to as "Haydn's Serenade" is definitely another.

A set of six string quartets was published in Paris in 1777 as Haydn's Op. 3. Haydn by this stage of his career was becoming famous across Europe; works by him (or claiming to be by him) would have been guaranteed to sell well and publishers were not above putting a famous name on a set of works by someone else to increase their income. Some still regard these six quartets as the work of Haydn, but most musicologists believe that they are the work of Roman Hofstetter, a composer and Benedictine monk who admired Haydn to the point of slavishly imitating him in his own works.

Roman Hofstetter

Whether Hoffstetter was a party to the deception - if a deception it is - is impossible to determine today. What is known is that one movement from these quartets - popularly called "Haydn's Serenade" - has become forever associated with the great man. Whoever wrote it, it's a lovely tune. [listen]

A far more serious, and more recent, controversy surrounding the music of Haydn evolved in the 1990s. In the 1760s Haydn, like Mozart and many other composers, kept a catalogue of his works, noting the opening melody beside the entry to help identify the piece in question. These opening melodies are called "incipits" and they're invaluable to musicological research.

Haydn's catalogue contains a listing with incipits for eight keyboard sonatas which have long been assumed lost; none of the known Haydn sonatas start with these melodies. That was, until 1993, when the pianist Paul Badura-Skoda was sent photocopies of manuscripts of six keyboard sonatas which the sender claimed to be six of these missing works. After much mystery and controversy, the sonatas were declared probably authentic by Badura-Skoda, and - more importantly - definitely authentic by the famous Haydn scholar HC Robbins Landon.

Paul Badura-Skoda

The International Haydn Institute then shot back, declaring they were forgeries, on the basis of details in the manuscript itself. What stunned everybody - believers and unbelievers alike - was the quality of the music. As Landon said, "If they are forgeries they are master forgeries. In fact, the work of the greatest forger of all time." To this day the true composer of the music has not been fully determined, even though the external evidence of the manuscript would indicate they are not authentic Haydn.

If Haydn did write them then they are a glorious addition to our knowledge of his development, supposedly being written at an important transitional stage of his career. But if Haydn didn't write them then there is (or was) someone else in the world who deserves our admiration and attention.

This is part of Paul Badura-Skoda's recording of these works, made in 1993, played on a 1790 fortepiano. [listen]

Another aspect of things not being "necessarily so" is in the way certain pieces are performed, and in this area fashions can and do change. When I was a child it was almost unthinkable to perform Handel's Messiah with the composer's original instrumentation; nowadays it's almost unthinkable not to. Do we or don't we include the "Polish” act in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov? Should Mahler's first symphony include the "Blumine" movement, and should the symphony (with our without Blumine) be called the "Titan"? Art is art and much as we might sometimes like things to be safe and predictable and always the same, it never is. We might have our preferences but such things are almost impossible to legislate on.

It might be true to say that Bizet's Carmen is the most popular opera in the world but it's fascinating that the version in which it swept the world after its Paris premiere in 1875 was not the version which the composer left to posterity. Carmen was originally conceived as an "opéra comique", a French tradition which required singing actors and actors who could sing. Opéra comique has musical numbers separated by spoken dialogue (such as we might find in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, or a modern musical).

Poster for the premiere season of Bizet's Carmen (1875)

In contrast to this was what the French simply called "opéra": opera which was sung all the way through, usually with recitatives between the larger musical numbers instead of dialogue.

Bizet died only three months after the premiere of Carmen. The form in which he left it - with spoken dialogue - was not suitable for performance in regular opera houses. Such places required the work to be entirely sung, so recitatives were needed to replace the dialogue; Bizet's friend, Ernest Guiraud, undertook this task. Guiraud was not some untalented hack but a skilled musician in his own right, and it was the all-sung Guiraud version of Carmen which swept around the world almost immediately. Within five years Carmen had been performed in Vienna, Brussels, Antwerp, Budapest, St Petersburg, Stockholm, London, Dublin, New York, Philadelphia, Naples...and even as far away as Melbourne.

Ernest Guiraud

What is not widely known, though, is Bizet was preparing to write recitatives for Carmen himself, because he understood as much as anyone that the work needed to be shorn of its dialogue in order to be performable in places which didn't have the opéra-comique tradition of singing actors, and he certainly would have done this had he not died.

Today, in the world-wide move to supposed authenticity, Carmen is usually performed with dialogue, and the Guiraud recitatives are frowned upon. However it should be remembered that the Guiraud version may in many respects reflect much more of Bizet's ultimate intentions than we give it credit for.

It really boils down to what you want, and it must be said that for all its “authenticity”, the dialogue is difficult for modern opera singers who are not trained as actors, especially in large theatres. But the recitatives do have the potential of slowing up the action, even if they are easier to project. As always, it's a house of cards. And what we think is so, sometimes ain't necessarily so. (I’ll leave you to find your own favoured versions of Carmen online!)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2010.

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