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).

Mar 20, 2015

Hoax that fooled music critics for 30 years

What would you rather listen to: a “lost classic” from a master like Vivaldi, or a song composed by someone called Fritz Kreisler? Trying to make his name as a violinist in the early 1900s, Kreisler knew the answer to this question, and came up with a way to get around it – lie. He claimed to his audiences that he had travelled through Europe, and found a series of undiscovered gems by famous classical artists in monasteries and libraries around the continent. He would then play music penned by his own hand, in the guise of performing works by classical heavyweights like Vivaldi and Pugnani. He grew incredibly successful, and the truth about the origins of his so-called lost classics came out on his 60th birthday. It turned out Kreisler did in fact have an honest streak, as when New York Times music critic Olin Downes jokingly asked him in her “Happy Birthday” message if he had written the songs himself, he told that yes, in fact, he had. The story ran as headline news.

Friedrich "Fritz" Kreisler (February 2, 1875 – January 29, 1962) was an Austrian-born violinist and composer. One of the most famous violin masters of his or any other day, and regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time, he was known for his sweet tone and expressive phrasing. Like many great violinists of his generation, he produced a characteristic sound, which was immediately recognizable as his own. Although he derived in many respects from the Franco-Belgian school, his style is nonetheless reminiscent of the gemütlich (cozy) lifestyle of pre-war Vienna.

In the midst of his growing career before the war, Kreisler found himself short of the kind of convincing but little-known material that would keep his concerts fresh. He composed music of his own, but was not convinced, that he had the stature to introduce a great deal of original music in his concerts. Therefore, he began to write music that was vaguely in the style of almost-forgotten composers from the distant past—France's François Couperin, Germany's Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and others—and to claim that he had unearthed the music in libraries and monasteries. Older music was little known at the time, and the reverse-plagiarized music became a favorite component of Kreisler's concerts. Kreisler finally revealed the hoax in 1935 when he was jokingly asked by New York Times music critic Olin Downs whether he had actually written the older pieces and answered the question truthfully.

Kreisler's admission touched off an uproar, with some critics attacking his deception while others praised the artfulness of his counterfeits (there were 17 of them) and contended that the audience's enjoyment of the music was the most important thing. Kreisler explained his original reasons for writing the pieces and argued that, unlike in the case of a counterfeit painting, no one had been harmed by his forgeries. Kreisler weathered the controversy; his popularity in the late 1930s was undiminished. Heard today, the counterfeits sound very little like Couperin or Dittersdorf and a great deal, like Kreisler's other music. For his entire life, Kreisler was a teller of tall tales that were accepted as fact in many cases; he once claimed, for example, to have been held at gunpoint by a cowboy in Butte, Montana, who wanted to hear a specific violin work by Johann Sebastian Bach.

While most critics took Kreisler's prank in good part, Ernest Newman indignantly attacked the violinist's behavior as unethical and likely to discredit bona fide arrangements of old music. The virulence of Newman's accusations caught Kreisler by surprise. On the contrary, he retorted, he had done the musical world a service, for 'who ever had heard a work by Pugnani, Cartier, Francoeur, Porpora, Louis Couperin, Padre Martini or Stamitz before I began to compose in their names? They lived exclusively as paragraphs in musical reference books, and their work, when existing and authenticated; lay moldering in monasteries and old libraries'.

Here is Oscar Shumsky playing a piece by Kreisler, done in the style of Vivaldi, how he was known at the time, before a lot of Vivaldi's pieces were discovered. This is the first movement, Allegro energico ma non troppo.

And here is Prelude and allegro "In the style of Pugnani" for violin and piano.

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