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.


Book Nerd said...

On behalf of the bookstore, thanks for spreading the word. I have it on good authority from Overlook that Rohan is charismatically odd and charming on the subject of funerary violin, and as a musician and performer. Should be a strange, great evening. He may drop in around 5:00, so come early for more funerary violin music.

I've never gotten to say and write the word "funerary" so much as I have in the past week. I'm not even sure if it's a real word, but I kind of like it.

Sophie Vogt said...

Jim Harris at Prairie Lights Books recently sent me an advance copy of AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF THE ART OF FUNERARY VIOLIN and I must take issue with his colleague Paul Ingram’s assessment that the book is a hoax. My belief is that the Rohan Kriwaczek hoax is itself a hoax.

Let me explain. I am the director of MuseumZeitraim Leipzig and a former curator at The Wassmann Foundation, Washington, D.C. Research and scholarship at both institutions confirms that the Leipzig composer Hugo Wassmann, brother of the renowned artist Johann Dieter Wassmann, was an active member of the Lutheran wing of Leipzig’s Guild of Funerary Violinists in the 1890s. Hugo’s ultimate falling out with the Guild came in 1901 over his efforts to introduce the saxophone to funerary rights, a practice that would eventually take hold in the city of New Orleans with great success, although not among Lutherans. Hugo was a former captain in the Prussian army and regularly composed military marches inclusive of the saxophone.

Here in Leipzig, the funerary violin has a long and crucial history, most often associated with Heironymous Gratchenfleiss. Gratchenfleiss’s extensive archives were in the care of
Musikinstrumenten-Museum der Universität Leipzig, part of the Grassi Museum, but lost forever when the complex was gutted by fire in an Allied bombing raid on 3 December 1943.

The un-sourced (and poorly translated) letter Kriwaczek quotes referencing Gratchenfleiss, dated 14 September 1787 (pp 62-63), which he simply describes as “by an unknown man named Fredrik,” is in fact by the pen of Fredrik Wassmann, grandfather of Johann and Hugo, describing the funeral of their great-grandfather, a funeral Gratchenfleiss performed. An original copy of the letter is in the archives of The Wassmann Foundation. The liberties Kriwaczek takes with his facts would appear to be part of a larger narrative strategy to make it appear he has created a hoax, when he hasn’t. What a dull book it would have been otherwise.



Sophie Vogt
MuseumZeitraum Leipzig

CRwM said...

Thank you for writing Ms. Vogt. Your insights are provocative and well worth further research.

Did you not find it interesting that An Incomplete History failed to mention the irony that brother of one of the greatest proto-modernists was one of the last links to this most pre-modern of traditions?

However, I must take issue with an idea you've been promoting on your own otherwise excellent web site. I'm referring to the notion that New Orleans's funerary musical traditions represent a thriving preserve of somewhat evolved, but still essentially "original stock" funerary violin music – a sort of musical "lost world," if you will. I believe a close re-reading of Hugo Leichtentritt's posthumously published Music of a Western Nation, a book I'm certain you are already familiar with, puts paid to that idea quite definitively.