Imitation of life

Barring any sudden revelations involving Riccardo Muti, a beautiful disaffected ex-KGB agent, and a briefcase full of uranium (TOTALLY MADE-UP STORY, although can’t you just see Muti in a plot like that?), the Joyce Hatto brouhaha is certainly shaping up to be the classical music scandal of the year. Just in case you were submerged in therapeutic mud for the past couple of days, here’s the gist: a recluse who lost a long battle with cancer last year, Ms. Hatto nonetheless became a cult favorite among aficionados on the basis of her 100+ CDs released on the tiny Concert Artists label. A great story: a musician, initially denied her chance at greatness, perseveres through her physical difficulty to create a lasting contribution to the art. However, as the magazine Gramophone first reported on Thursday, a handful of those recordings have been revealed as spurious, concocted by repackaging other pianists’ previously existing recordings with slight digital alterations. The evidence is persuasive, to say the least—and it seems likely that more examples are to come. (Lisa Hirsch has all the pertinent links.)

Now I have a fondness for well-executed or particularly brazen hoaxes and forgeries, which I’ve touched on before. What’s interesting to me about this one is that although the words fraud, fake, and hoax have been bandied about quite a bit, as far as I can tell, in the initial reports, only Alan Riding’s write-up in the New York Times (which Jerry at Sequenza21 wittily purloined) calls the situation what it is: plagiarism. Most forgeries involve taking your own work and passing it off as somebody else’s, usually somebody more famous than you. This, if the allegations pan out, is just the opposite: taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own.

I’m not surprised that the hoax went undetected for so long. I like to think that I have reasonably savvy ears, but I would doubt my own ability to hear the deception, unless I was specifically listening for it—and who listens to music that way? (To their credit, some people were suspicious from the first.) What’s really intriguing is that no one else (to my knowledge, at least) has tried this before. It would seem to me that classical music recording would provide great opportunities for plagiarism. Why? Because the logistics of performance are pretty close to plagiarism already. Even though there’s no attempt at deception, and there’s full attribution, a pianist playing the Transcendental Etudes is using notes, rhythms, and dynamics set down by Liszt—and, at least textually, nothing else. Any two performances of the same piece are going to be largely the same. Of course, the artistry lies in the slight differences; but what the individual performer brings to the table is a historical anomaly, something that has persisted in music long after the notion of plagiarism erased it from other intellectual pursuits.

In 1747, the English poet John Milton was accused by one William Lauder of plagiarising much of Paradise Lost from a 1654 Latin poem by Jacobus Masenius. The charges were baseless—the Latin lines Milton supposedly stole had, in fact, been added to Masenius’s original by Lauder—which was demonstrated by John Douglas in his 1750 pamphlet Milton Vindicated from the Charge of Plagiarism Brought Against Him by Mr. Lauder. But Douglas went on to say, in effect, even if the charges were true, it doesn’t matter.

A great Genius looks upon himself as having a Right to convert to his own Use, and in order to furnish out a more perfect Entertainment, whatever has been already prepared and made ready. But he exercises this Right in such a Manner as to convince every one, that his having Recourse to it is not the Effect of Sterility of his Fancy, but to the Solidity of his Judgement. He borrows only to shew his own Talents in heightening, refining and polishing all that is furnished him by others, and thereby secures his Character as a fine Writer, from being confounded with that of the Dull Copyer.

Replace “writer” with “performer,” and that’s as good a description of musical artistry as I’ve ever read. Composers, too, at least at this time: George Buelow, who quotes Douglas in his article “Originality, Genius, Plagiarism in English Criticism of the Eighteenth Century,” goes on to write, “One can only speculate if the greatest composer in England at this time, George Frederic Handel, might have read Douglas’ defense of Milton. For he would have surely nodded in agreement, even though a half century later he too would be accused of plagiarism for having followed much the same principles of imitation in his music.” The virtues of such imitation have long been interred under modern ideas of originality and intellectual property, but their ghosts still haunt classical performance.

I’m not trying to excuse the perpetrators, be they Hatto, her producer-husband, record executives, or some combination of the three. Plagiarism is, to this connoisseur, a particularly poor form of hoaxing, marked by laziness and paucity of imagination. But one wonders if there was more driving the Hatto deception than mere pecuniary gain. It’s interesting to note that the first Western composer to sign his name to his work was doing so to prop up a fraud. Ademar of Charbannes was an 11th-century French monk who, determined to prove that his countryman Martial was one of the original apostles of Jesus, fabricated a Vita of Martial, purportedly by his bishoprical successor, Aurelian. Ademar’s Apostolic Mass was written to commemorate the planned recognition of Martial’s promoted status, but the event was a failure, sabotaged by Ademar’s more famous monastical contemporary, Benedict, who regarded the Martial hagiography as nonsense; Ademar tried to appeal to the pope, but was denied the chance. But he had his revenge: forging letters that made it appear that the pope had indeed heard Ademar’s case and sided with him, he slipped the documents into a library where he knew no one would see them for several generations. Discovered after his death, the accounts were accepted as authentic, a false history that wasn’t unraveled until the 20th century.

Was the Hatto plagiarism something similar? By appropriating the performances of others, was she trying to create an alternate reality, one in which her art triumphed over the vicissitudes of life rather than falling victim to them? It’s certainly a more poetic notion. The cynical side of me doubts that the motives were anywhere near that high-minded; but the artistic side of me wants to believe it, that the fraud was, in its own warped way, a type of performance.


  1. This sounds like it’s straight out of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, particularly the great middle ones which are all about forgery and authenticity.

  2. Recently a propos: Jonathan Lethem’s essay in this months’ Harper’s Magazine, The Ecstasy of Influence, A Plagiarism. < HREF="" REL="nofollow">LINK<>

  3. There’s also the theory that Hatto went through the effort of recording these in their home studio and felt these were being released while her husband, noting the increasing weakness, instead released other recordings under her name, carefully chosen to match her approach of playing with only the composer in mind -as was emphasized by her in interviews- explaining the lack of strong individual personality traits perceived. All the performances did have a few things in common – analytical approach, clarity, detail brought out by articulations not dependent on pedal and a real musicality that still avoided the almost reckless spontaneity and abandon of some noteworthy personalities known for the definitely identifiable personal traits displayed in their playing. This is, of course, a HUGE stretch, as I’ve said elsewhere, but one possibility though certainly not probability 🙂

  4. That is true Andry’s, but all those things you mentioned are so because her husband was a master recording arist. He could make different musicians appear to sound the same through sound manipulation. This didn’t happen that long ago.

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