It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Nov 20, 2011

An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin

“a kind of literary equivalent of a mockumentary.”
James Ley (Australian Literary Review)

“Read as an amusing fable it's a lot of fun —
but it also takes aim at the walled city of the classical canon
by positing the possibility of a popular form of classical music.”
Steven Carroll (Age)

The Art of the Funerary Violin is a fascinating work
in its own right, an unorthodox alternative history novel
filled with left-field characters and quirky details.”
Tim Howard (Sydney Morning Herald)

An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin is a 2006 book by Rohan Kriwaczek, purportedly tracing the lost history of funerary violin. According to this book, the funerary violin was a musical genre that was ousted by the Vatican in the mid-19th century and has rarely been spoken of since.

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But the problem is that all the music history experts, violin dealers, string-instrument publications, and other professionals, claimed that there is no evidence of the funerary violin genre, forgotten or otherwise.

There were no Great Funerary Purges. And Mr. Kriwaczek did not graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in 1974, as his biography claims, or receive a lifetime achievement award from the International Federation of Funeral Directors, an organization that appears to exist only on the author’s personal Web site.

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“Maybe I have been fooled,” the book's U.S. publisher, Peter Mayer from Overlook Press, said. “It is possible. But it reads so extraordinarily serious and passionate. If it is a hoax, I can only say, I have my cap off.”

It is easy to see how Mr. Mayer could have found himself spellbound by the book, a sprawling 208-page volume complete with detailed biographies, black-and-white photographs and elaborate musical scores. Mr. Kriwaczek painstakingly describes the members of what he calls the Guild of Funerary Violinists, with names like Bulstrode Whycherley and Wilhelm Kleinbach. In a photo dated 1870, Mr. Kleinbach bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Kriwaczek in an author photo.

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But the book’s entry in the Overlook Press catalog raised the suspicion of Paul Ingram, the trade-book buyer of Prairie Lights, an independent bookstore in Iowa City, who contacted an expert in the history of the violin, David Schoenbaum, who said the book seemed to be a hoax. Mr. Schoenbaum, an occasional book reviewer for The New York Times, brought the book to the paper’s attention. Database searches for the Guild of Funerary Violinists produced few results, among them Mr. Kriwaczek’s Web site, a MySpace page and a deleted Wikipedia entry on the topic. “We’ve never heard of this guild,” said Frances Gillham, a director at J & A Beare, a violin dealer in London. “Unless it’s some sort of strange folk thing, it seems pretty unlikely.”

Mr. Mayer said he had doubts of his own soon after he read the manuscript last year at the Frankfurt Book Fair. So before buying the book, he insisted on meeting Mr. Kriwaczek in London, a week later. “In he walks, deadly serious, with his violin,” Mr. Mayer said. “I ask him a whole bunch of questions. He gave more or less credible answers to them. Some of them, he said, ‘I can’t answer, Mr. Mayer, because it is a secret society and it’s dying out.’ ”

Mr. Kriwaczek, who through his publicist in London declined interview requests, has tried to sell his tale of funerary violins before. Ariane Todes, editor of The Strad, a leading monthly magazine about string instruments, said Mr. Kriwaczek submitted a 2,000-word article about the funerary violin to the magazine earlier this year.

“He presented it as a factual piece of research complete with photographs and quotes and things,” Ms. Todes said. To prop up his story, Mr. Kriwaczek supplied the editors with pictures, letters and photocopies of articles from what Ms. Todes called “obscure British newspapers dating back to the 18th century.”

Among them was a facsimile of a letter supposedly written to Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss, who Mr. Kriwaczek said was a funerary violinist. But the editors, growing wary of Mr. Kriwaczek, were not convinced of the letter’s authenticity. “It suspiciously had tea stains on it and looked like modern handwriting,” Ms. Todes said.

Days before the magazine went to press, the editors rejected the article. It was only after that, Ms. Todes said, that Mr. Kriwaczek admitted in an e-mail message that the funerary violin was an invention.

“We thought of running it as an April Fools’ joke,” Ms. Todes said, “but then thought, no, he doesn’t deserve it.”

Despite the questions of authenticity, popped up even before the book was released to the public, Peter Mayer decided to purchase the manuscript and go on with its publishing.
"I decided it didn't really matter to me how much of this was actually accurate. It was a life's work. [Kriwacezk] was dedicated to this guild not being forgotten, dedicated to the music. I decided this is just an amazing piece of work, and I wanted to publish it," Mayer says.

In his book, Kriwaczek writes about "funerary duels" in France in the 1810s: Two violinists improvised on a fragment of melody, attempting to draw more tragedy from it than his opponent; the winner was the artist who drew the most tears from the assembled crowd.

"Who knows if it's true, but it's unbelievable reading," Mayer says.

Book stores that have agreed to stock the book are unsure how to categorize it. The book does not really belong in fiction because it is not a typical narrative, but the art history section would also be incorrect because much "historical" fact has been invented.

Kriwaczek argues that his book is neither a hoax nor an attempt to mislead. He issued a statement on October 5, 2006, in which he writes that to call his work a hoax is to misunderstand his intentions. He highlighted that he wanted to "expand the notion of musical composition to encompass the creation of an entire artistic genre, with its necessary accompanying history, mythology, philosophy, social function, etc." Also, he noted that as a funerary violinist himself, he has performed at more than 50 funerals throughout southeast England.

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To complete this publication, we would like to offer you the video clip of the Rohan Theatre Band.

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