Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Event: "But then maybe a spiritless age deserves a spiritless death. It is not for me to judge."
In 16th century, musicians dedicated to the performance funerary violin joined together to form what would become the oldest surviving artistic guild in England: the Guild of Funerary Violinists. Funerary violin music grew out of the Protestant Reformation. With the end of concept of Intercession, the idea that only priests could petition God on behalf of the souls of the departed, violin musicians filled the spiritual vacuum that death of priestly ritual left behind. The original funerary violinists would begin playing at funerals as early as the late 1586, with a well-reported performance at the funeral of famed poet Sir Philip Sidney. Granted official status under a warrant from Queen Elizabeth I, the Guild of Funerary Violinists spread the unique genre of funerary violin through England. By the 17th century, the art form was common throughout the Continent, especially in Protestant countries. Funerary violin truly becames its own genre when Friedrich Heidebrecht produced the first funerary violin suite in 1670. Funerary violin reached it peak during the Romantic Era, only to fade from memory in the modern era. The death of funerary violin was the product of specific political and religious purges as well as broad cultural trends. The Vatican-led Funerary Purges of the mid-19th Century were an enormous blow to the Guild. Furthermore, modern attitudes regarding death made the intensely meditative and melancholy art form seem morbid. Finally, the modal and tradition bound form, which rigorously eschewed virtuoso performances, failed to appeal to experimental and aggressive modernists. By the end of World War I, funerary violin was practically extinct.
In September of this year, the UK-based publisher Duckworth released a curious tome titled An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin. In the book, author Rohan Kriwaczek, the current acting President of the Guild of Funerary Violinists, lays out the history of this most obscure and unjustly forgotten genre of classical music as well as provides biographical sketches of the most important and notable funerary violinists. Kriwaczek's book is at once a lament for the neglected art form he loves and a thoroughly researched introduction for the music scholar and the lay reader. It is difficult to think of a better place to start exploring this fancinating subject.
In fact, there's only one flaw with book – it is completely made up.
Shortly after its publication, scholars, musicians, and historical experts all told the New York Times that there wasn't a shred of evidence to support any of Kriwaczek's claims. As far as they know, there was never a Guild of Funerary Violinists, no special genre of funerary violin music, and no massive effort to destroy the form. It is, they decided, a massive hoax.
Or is it?
This Halloween, Rohan Kriwaczek, author and acting President of the Guild of Funerary Violinists, will be performing funerary violin music live at McNally Robinson Bookseller's in SoHo. The performance starts at 6 PM. Either you'll get to see one of the last remaining practitioners of a forgotten art doing his thing or you'll get to be in on one of the most charming literary hoaxes in recent memory. That's what we call a win-win situation.