Haydn scholars say new-found sonatas appear forged

December 29, 1993|By Allan Kozinn | Allan Kozinn,New York Times News Service

The set of six keyboard sonatas attributed to Franz Joseph Haydn and declared a monumental musicological find two weeks ago may turn out to be modern forgeries, several musicologists said over the weekend.

The question is still being debated, but the premiere performance and a symposium, which had been scheduled at Harvard University in Feburary, have been canceled.

"The initial consensus that the music was Haydn's seems to be falling apart," said James Webster, a Haydn scholar and professor of music at Cornell University. "It is a great pity, because if it were genuine it would be of fundamental importance to our understanding of Haydn's development as a composer."

The works, supposedly six of the seven lost sonatas Haydn composed after 1765, were reportedly discovered by an unidentified elderly woman in Munster, Germany, who took them to Winfried Michel, a local flutist and music-theory teacher. Mr. Michel has provided photocopies of the work to scholars but has not allowed them access to the manuscript.

At first, Haydn experts declared the works to be early 19th-century Italian copies of sonatas listed in Haydn's own catalog. The find was announced at a news conference in London Dec. 14, at which the musicologist H. C. Robbins Landon declared the discovery "the greatest musicological coup of the century."

But Haydn scholars in Germany were already raising doubts. The Joseph Haydn Institute in Cologne, which is producing a complete edition of Haydn's works, held a private symposium Dec. 10, during which sections of the photocopied score were examined.

A few days later, Horst Walter, whose title is "scholarly director," issued a statement to the German press saying that "a vast majority" at the symposium had concluded that "the sonatas are a forgery."

In the statement, Mr. Walter noted that the score "is clearly a modern production, in which many different historical styles of handwriting are imitated. The works themselves exhibit a host of technical faults as well as discrepancies in thematic construction and large-scale form."

But Mr. Landon, speaking by phone from his home near Toulouse, France, on Sunday, said he had not made up his mind about the works.

"We don't know," he said when asked if he now believed the works to be forgeries. "The problem is [that] we haven't seen the source, the actual manuscript. Nobody has seen it. But the music is very good. If it is really a forgery, it's the work of an arch-faker."

But as minutes of the Cologne meeting circulated among Haydn scholars last week, confidence in the authenticity of the manuscript eroded. Christoph Wolff, a professor of music and the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said that manuscript experts in London agreed with the Haydn Institute's conclusions about the handwriting.

"We had wanted to take the opportunity of the premiere to present a scholarly symposium," Mr. Wolff said, "but we did not want to announce it until the facts were clarified. I personally had some suspicions. The six sonatas were not listed in Haydn's catalog as a set or as consecutive works. They are spread over 2 1/2 pages. I felt uncomfortable about these six lost sonatas showing up in a single manuscript."

Now, Mr. Wolff said, plans for the symposium have been dropped. So has the planned premiere of the set by the pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who with his wife, Eva, a musicologist, was among the first to examine a facsimile of the manuscript.

Mr. Landon said that he planned to discuss the works and his conclusions about them in the February BBC Music Magazine.

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