A question of attribution

There was not much time for musing at last night’s rehearsal.  Carlos kept us very busy, focusing in particular (and with more than a little justification) on us basses.  I hope we were singing more in tune at the end of the evening than we were at the beginning!

However, earlier in the week I heard something which really set me thinking.  After playing the well-known Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Russell Torrance of ABC Classic FM calmly announced that nobody knows whether this work was actually composed by JS Bach himself, by one of his musical family, or by one of his pupils.

Really?  And then I remembered that not long ago someone had cast doubt on the true composer of the Bach Solo Cello Suites, citing evidence that they may have been penned by one of Bach’s wives, Anna Magdelena.

It is a not uncommon situation.  We are currently preparing to sing a work whose composition is shrouded in some mystery, and yet we still call it Mozart’s Requiem.

Next week, Anne and I go to hear Deryck Cooke’s completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.  Unlike poor old Sussmeyer, who seems to receive little credit for completing Mozart’s Requiem, Deryck Cooke is always given programme billing – maybe because, although his is the most frequently performed, there are alternative versions.

And then there is Elgar’s Third Symphony.  Elgar wrote most of the first movement and sketched out the remaining movements, so this is always billed as Edward Elgar: the sketches for Symphony No 3 elaborated by Anthony Payne – long winded but accurate.

These are all wonderful pieces of music, whatever their attribution, and well worth listening to.  In contrast, a few months ago I watched a TV programme about trying to decide whether a  painting was really the work of one particular old master.  It was fascinating, because it seemed that the proof depended on every single brush-stroke being quite definitively the work of the old master himself.  One stroke by someone else, however close to the old master, would render the painting inauthentic, reducing its artistic integrity, and thus its value, by a considerable margin, however beautiful it might be.

So in one art form, painting, attribution is everything.  And in ours, music, a more expansive view is taken.  And a good thing, too, or we might not have the thrill and satisfaction of listening to and singing many pieces of doubtfully attributed, but nevertheless wonderful, music.