Friday, 12 August 2016


Unraveling Musical Myths is long overdue for another installment of MAYHEM BEHIND THE MUSIC…so today I share with the reader four salacious episodes of chicanery - grand spectacles of deception, illicit fraud and plain ole' taking the Mickey out of the often pretentious world of Classical Music and it’s highly esteemed, glamorous cohort, Opera.

Below you will find some of my favorite anecdotes involving deception, thievery, and delightfully drôle humor under the guise of ingenious hoaxery. 


We begin in that most historic, most diverse United Kingdom. It is the year 1980, and Stanley Sadie, editor-in-chief of the world renowned scholarly musical tome The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians has just approved the latest edition of the popular Western Music Reference guide, and gave the green light to the pressers to have the massive work set to print.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, an encyclopaedic dictionary of music and it’s practitioners, was the brainchild of writer and Classical music aficionado Sir George Grove. Grove, a highly respected ‘expert’ in the field of music was revered in his day for setting to production a series of orchestral concerts and is notable for his discovery of the formerly ‘lost’ score Rosamunde, an early 19th century play scored by Franz Schubert and for his association with the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, and popular musicians like Charles Villiers Stanford. As such, the classical music loving public trusted both the opinions and works held and supported by Grove…

article as it appeared in The New Grove, 1980
that is, until one budding music scholar (and undoubtedly stalwart bibliophile) espied a most peculiar entry – two in fact – in the pages of the New Grove. The names Gulielmo Baldini, a musician from Italy (whose resumé boasted works dedicated to then ruling pontiff Pope Innocent IX); and the ‘composer’-cum-flautist Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup of Denmark (who counted among his musical protégés the so-called “Father of Czech Music” Bedřich Smetana - and whose father held an esteemed post as chamber flautist to the Dane King, Christian IX) – seemed at odds to this most inquisitive reader. Odd, in that he was certain he had never heard of either composer.

The "Ersum-Hellerup faux article,
The New Grove, 1980.
Indeed, the nefarious pair were soon discovered to be hoax entries in the dictionary (sometimes, a writer or editor would sneak into print an intentionally false or misleading article in an effort to combat copyright violations – however, in the case of Esrum-Hellerup and Baldini, plagiarism did not seem to be the motivating factor for the gag – which was likely submitted to editors in adolescent-like jest)

When Sadie caught wind of the fake entries, he became outraged and refused the production of a second printing until he was certain all traces of the offending material were wiped clean. To rub salt in the wound, the person of Baldini, it was later discovered, was based on a character created by a German musicologist nearly a century and a half earlier for a bogus dictionary!

The Grove’s sister publication, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, published in Germany, is said to still have the false Baldini and Ersum-Hellerup articles in it’s print, although the latter is clearly identified as being a spoof.


A Daguerreotype (a primitive form of photography/photographic process) allegedly featuring the camera shy widow Mozart re-surfaced in the budding years of the present century. The grainy black and white image depicts a black-haired, somber looking “Constanze,” flanked by Swiss composer and confidante Max Keller and his immediate family and is estimated to have been photographed sometime in October of 1840 at the Keller home.

The alleged "Constanze Mozart," (BL); Max Keller (BC) & the Keller family, c. 1840

The ‘discovery’ initially caused a sensation across the classical music sphere – however this unbridled enthusiasm would prove to be short lived when the print was dissected by modern Mozart scholars: Agnes Selby, author of “Constanze, Mozart’s Beloved,” had recalled reading reports of the hoax - which had been revealed nearly two centuries earlier - as the brainchild of an imaginative and most industrious Keller grandson. The “photo,” as it turns out, was certainly not a new ‘discovery’ – it has also been revealed that the same print had been published on at least two occasions in the mid-twentieth century, and was coined a hoax even then by leading Mozart scholars.

In addition, photography experts have since weighed in with their two cents:
“There are no outdoor photographs of groups of people dating from 1840 because the lenses invented by Joseph Petzval, which were to make such portraits possible, were not available yet."
I think that about puts this Moz-artful fable to rest.


Famed American violinist extraordinaire, Joshua Bell, whose extraordinary talents saw the musician performing as a soloist with the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra under maestro Riccardo Muti at the tender age of just fourteen, and whose sensitive interpretations of former classical masters has since catapulted the now 48 year old virtuoso into an iconic legend status and household name, partook in an experiment in January of 2007, initiated by the newsprint The Washington Post in an effort to conduct a blind study of public perceptions of class, music, fame and status.

Bell, who currently plays on a multi-million 1713 antique Stradivarius, the Gibson ex-Huberman, and who undoubtedly earns a most agreeable wage for his mesmerizing efforts took to Washington’s L'Enfant Plaza metro subway station, clad in casual attire and a baseball cap and began, like so many before and after him, to engage the practise of busking. After reviewing footage of the roughly 45 minute experiment courtesy of strategically placed hidden cameras, it was revealed that out of a total of 1,097 passers-by, only seven felt moved to stop and listen to the violinist – and out of that seven, only a single ‘audience’ member recognized him as Bell. Of the 1,097 people who simply passed by the musician, only 27 offered largesse: making for a grand total of $32.17. 

Bell at L'Enfant Plaza (performing the famous "Chaconne"[1] from J.S. Bach's Violin
Partita No. II in D minor):

After it was revealed via the Post (which earned a Pulitzer Prize for piece) that the (perceived) downtrodden 'busker' was in fact the legend Bell performing for the general public the very same repertoire he had played at a paying concert only days before, the humble musician-turned-sociologist opened to a much greater, far more aware musical public at D.C.’s Union Station in 2014.

...second time's a charm (at Union Station in DC 7 years following the big reveal:)


What list of hoaxes could be complete without laying mention to the name and person of (formerly) critically acclaimed pianist Joyce Hatto?

Hatto, an English concert pianist and music teacher managed to run her scam into the grave with the “assistance” of convicted fraudster and husband to Joyce, one William Barrington-Coupe, who secretly interwove performances of more skilled - and surprisingly, more famous - pianists into the works of Hatto, which were then sold as records for profit. (It should be mentioned, however, that due to the ‘success’ of the scam – that is – that it continued until the death of Hatto, (and even then, for some months postmortem) – that it remains debatable whether her husband acted alone or if Hatto was cognizant of his duplicity)).

Barrington-Coupe, who would later admit wrongdoing, only to recant his confession, then modify it, claimed a romantic act of love for an ailing master musician in Hatto, who suffered in her later years, succumbing to cancer in June of 2006. He has yet to reveal the full extent of Hatto’s involvement in the scheme.

Listen to a play-by-play account of how this remarkable 'discovery' unfolded (with the help of iTunes, no less), as told by James Inverne, editor of Gramophone Magazine at NPR (click the red play button on external site):

don't forget to read the transcript - it details Barrington-Coupe's "confession"- here.

Enjoy below a documentary on the Barrington-Coupe-Hatto debacle: The Great Piano Scam: 

[1] Notorious for being one of the longest, most arduous solo pieces ever written for the violin, Bach’s Chaconne still manages to thrill both audiences and performers alike even in the present era, with violinists of the caliber of Bell and Baron Yehudi Menuhin (22 April 1916 – 12 March 1999) declaring the piece “structurally perfect.”

From Bell:
“[it is] not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect."
The Chaconne’s grandiose allure even captured the attention of megalithic composers throughout posterity. 19th century late-romantic composer Johannes Brahms once described his initial reaction to hearing the piece in a letter to fellow composer Clara Schumann thusly:
“The Chaconne is for me one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible pieces of music. On a single staff, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I were to imagine how I might have made, conceived the piece, I know for certain that the overwhelming excitement and awe would have driven me mad.”

Want more? 

The following motley group of otherwise clever hucksters have made their mark on the pages of unravelingmusicalmyths:

More Mayhem at Unraveling Musical Myths:

Did You Know?

..that antique stringed instruments, such as the violins crafted by the famous Stradivari family owed their pristine sounds to the guts of sheep?

The tensile material was extracted from sheep postmortem by a farmhand in a rather crude - yet extremely precise fashion: hung atop a large wooden barrel a specially trained worker would make a small incision at gut level on the cadaver, being careful not to puncture the intestinal wall and expel gas and/or other detritus from the animal. The incision, with the aid of gravity, would be drawn southward toward the anus, whereupon the farmer would extract from the sheep the intact bowels.

The next gruesome bit would involve the manual separation of the small intestine from the large - this and the later stages of string making were perhaps the most nauseating  - not to mention the most dangerous - for the farmhand, who often worked from dawn to sundown as the demand for quality violins increased. Taking portions of the small intestine in hand, the worker would prime the casing by squeezing - with his bare hands - the excrement from the intestine, before beginning a process of manual irrigation using water, and fumigation by using a primitive funnel and the highly toxic chemical agent, sulfur.
The cleansed casings would then be carefully woven in intricate fashion by twisting to create a single string.

The occupation of string making was a highly competitive field, and one compensated for engaging in the works' rather macabre labor by a sense of pride in turning something once so degradable into something quite valuable (the proceeds of such intensive labor, however, went to the violin makers themselves - to famous families such as the Stradivari, who in turn soaked up much critical esteem.)

Perhaps the most significant marker of antique gut-stringed instruments lay not in the sublime sound quality they produce - but rather in the marketable value of the instrument itself as related to it's maker. Violins by brands such as Stradivarius continue even in the present era to appreciate in value: Bell is rumored to have purchased the the Gibson ex-Huberman for an amount approaching a ballpark of four million dollars, well below it's estimated value, which is in excess of 10 million.

The website Cmuse has a comprehensive list of various antique violins, with bonus blurbs regrading each instruments prior owners/loanees. Very interesting stuff. Check them out here.


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