Beethoven’s symphonies are by Beethoven. And Verdi’s operas are by Verdi. By and large, we can be fairly confident that when we think a much-loved work is by a certain composer, the likelihood is that it is so.


However, not everything is always quite as it seems – some pieces simply aren’t by the composer whose name they traditionally carry. Haydn’s Serenade for string quartet, for instance, is not by Haydn, and Albinoni’s Adagio is not by Albinoni. In one way or another, they have been attributed to the wrong person.

On the whole, wrong attributions arrive like old wives’ tales or Chinese whispers. If enough people think a work is by one person then barnacled tradition decrees it must be. Most works get attributed to the wrong composer by accident: a misleading manuscript, a wrong assumption, an arranger not checking facts, or a later version turning up that everyone takes as gospel.

Some works get wrongly ascribed through sheer skulduggery. After all, Squire, a publisher has to make an honest buck – if he puts it about that this beautiful work is by Bach, or that song is by the Beatles, then who cares if it’s not really, so long as the sales are good?

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Some works are definitely not by the composer whose name is on the cover. Some performances, meanwhile, really shouldn’t have the composer’s name on them. How far from Handel were the popular gut-wrenching, tear-jerking versions of his so-called ‘Largo’, when the original is a slightly comic larghetto in the style of a minuet. In their own way, distorting performances should be thought of as misattributions. Some interpreters are as dishonest as publishers who change names on covers for profit.

But which are the most famous works whose composers are not necessarily who we think they are? Here are a few for starters:

Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751) - Adagio in G minor

The ‘baroque masterpiece’… from the 1950s

There was a time when every ‘death in the family’ TV scene was accompanied by solemn faces, muted histrionics and ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’ pulsating in the background. It became so essential a part of popular tearfulness that it was used as part of background music for the film Gallipoli in 1981. But I wonder how many after rushing out to buy the recording thought it would be nice to hear what the rest of Albinoni was like. Disappointment loomed, as nothing else by Albinoni sounds remotely like the Adagio.

That’s because the Adagio in G minor is not by Albinoni. It was composed in the 1950s by Remo Giazotto, some 200 years after Albinoni died in Venice in 1751. Rumour had it that it was built up from an Albinoni fragment found in the Saxon State Library in Dresden, subsequently destroyed in the Allied bombing raids – handy, as no one could check. In fact, it is all Giazotto’s own work, though why Albinoni’s should have been good coat-tails to hang onto is difficult to say. Someone really should have spotted the deception. Or perhaps not. After all, Hitler was believed to have written diaries!

J S Bach (1685-1750) - Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Organ fireworks among the feuding scholars

It’s not that Bach’s celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D minor is definitely not by him, but that we can’t be sure it is by him – to some, stylistic elements within it seem just too unlikely to have come from his pen. Like most of Bach’s organ works, the original manuscript is lost so, like Crime Scene Investigation, scholars have gone to work on style, dating of surviving contemporary copies, and all sorts of other ways of trying to establish composership.

One suggestion has been Johannes Ringk, allegedly a pupil of Bach who had access to his works: perhaps he cribbed it (in which case it could still be by Bach!), or is it an arrangement of another work? Who knows? ‘I do!’, thundered Christian Wolff, the most eminent Bach scholar of them all, from his Harvard haven. There’s no ‘jury proof’ one way or the other and so, for the moment, we are spared having to re-catalogue our CDs.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - Trumpet Voluntary

Alteration at the altar, as Clarke gets the push

Some time ago brides who wanted to show that their musical tastes were a cut above the average decided against coming down the aisle to Wagner’s ‘Here comes the bride, short, fat and wide’ (from Lohengrin) in favour of an uplifting march from the 17th century. From the late 19th century till the middle of the 20th, said march was widely thought to be by Henry Purcell and was so published as ‘Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary’ in many organ anthologies. Henry Wood further enhanced the myth by making two orchestral transcriptions of it under that title.

In fact it comes from a semi-opera called The Island Princess, for which the music was composed by Jeremiah Clarke and Daniel (not Henry) Purcell, hence the misunderstanding. It’s just as well the brides didn’t know anything about poor old Clarke, as he fell hopelessly in love with a woman out of his social reach and ended up shooting himself, having previously thought of hanging or drowning himself. He was only 33.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) - Serenade op. 3

The Monk hidin’ behind Haydn

One of Haydn’s most loved works is his ‘Serenade’ from the string quartets Op. 3. This Andante cantabile with its alluring tune poised over a gentle pizzicato accompaniment is justly famous, but it is not by Haydn (either Joseph or even his brother Michael), even though it appeared in a creditable 18th-century edition of his works with his name on it. It’s from this edition that the misappropriation of the whole opus has arisen. The real composer was the Benedictine monk Roman Hofstetter (1742-1815), and a deliberate deception was involved.

In the 1770s Haydn became ever more widely admired. His popularity in Paris was so great that his music spawned a number of imitators who tried to pass off their works as by him – his name on a publication could double sales. When the plates of a set of string quartets arrived in Paris in the 1770s clearly showing them to be by Hofstetter, the publisher, Bailleux, scratched out Hofstetter’s name and put Haydn’s instead. But he wasn’t that good at scratching (except a living) – the original composer’s name is still detectable.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - Haydn Variations... the tune

Variations on a theme not by Haydn

Even the scholarly Brahms made a celebrated misattribution. He called his magnificent orchestral work Variations on a theme of Haydn. Alas, the theme is not by Haydn, but Brahms’s mistake is very understandable. A friend, Carl Ferdinand Pohl, the librarian of the Vienna Musikverein, was working on a biography of Haydn and showed Brahms his transcription of a Haydn Divertimento, whose second movement was variations on the ‘St Anthony Chorale’. Brahms put two and two together and made five, attributing the chorale to Haydn even though the older master had tried to indicate otherwise.

There the dust might have settled, but some have also suggested that Haydn’s Divertimento itself was not in fact by Haydn but by his pupil Ignaz Pleyel. So now conductors will be able to programme a redesignated work by Brahms ‘Variations on a theme once thought to be by Haydn, then by person or persons unknown, then by Pleyel’.

Gaetano Pugnani (1731-1798) - Tempo di Menuetto

A master fiddler tinkers with history

Gaetano Pugnani was a bona fide Italian composer who studied under Tartini. He was employed in Turin but enjoyed great success in Paris in the 1750s, and then in the 1760s in London where he eventually directed the music for the King’s theatre for two years. His reputation went the way of most composers, ie into obscurity, eventually being eclipsed by his most famous pupil Giovanni Viotti.

It was this obscurity that allowed the Austrian violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler to fake the birth certificates of some of his own pastiche compositions, such as the Tempo di Menuetto, attributing them to Pugnani. Maybe he felt age lent them respectability, or maybe he couldn’t think of anything more modern but didn’t want to be found out. In 1935 he confessed his deception, but not before the works had been published under the Italian’s name (not in fact the only name that Kreisler had used for his fakes). When some people complained to Kreisler about his fraud he replied nonchalantly: ‘The name changes, the value remains’. Clearly crime paid.

Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) - Miserere

Musical piracy on the High Cs?

There is no doubt that Allegri composed his celebrated setting of Psalm 51, the Miserere, in 1638. The question is how much of what we hear today he composed. Vatican censorship was partly responsible for the confusion. So beautiful did the authorities consider the work, in particular the way the smaller choir performed the elaborate ornaments (abbellimenti), that any copy or performance outside the Sistine Chapel was to be punished by excommunication.

This did not deter some intrepid souls, and by the early 18th century a version had leaked out that combined Allegri’s original with some later additions by Tommaso Bai. However, this did not show the stratospheric ornaments for which the work is now known. The Pope was in a more forgiving mood when the 14-year-old Mozart wrote it down from memory, as presents were showered on him. But even Mozart didn’t put in the ornaments, and this plain version was the basis of the London edition of 1771. Once published, the Vatican gave in and the ban was lifted.

But still the way the Sistine choristers performed it did not appear in print until 1840 when Pietro Alfieri, a Roman priest, published an edition with all those high Cs we know today, hoping thereby to preserve the ‘traditional’ way. In fact, he probably added even more distance between today’s performances and the original. But who knows?

John Redford (d.1547) Rejoice in the Lord

Lost in Transcription, a 16th-century farce

Up and down the country, Advent resounds to ‘Redford’s Rejoice’. Because it is quite easy, it gives the choirs much-needed time to rehearse all the music for Christmas. This punchy piece of polyphony appeared first in the Mulliner Book, a 16th-century anthology of sacred keyboard pieces compiled for his own use by one Thomas Mulliner. In one or two cases the keyboard pieces are, in fact, anthems that Mulliner had copied out, eg ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway’.

Nowadays, ‘Redford’ has become ‘anon’ because his authorship was due to this work being sandwiched in the manuscript between two other works that are definitely by him. But ‘Rejoice’ has no ascription, so when the anthem became separated from its source it acquired his name. He may have written it, he may not, but like many misattributions the truth lies beyond our grasp.

Editor’s note: While we have very good reason to believe this article was written by Roderick Swanston, we do remind readers to treat the authorship of any work with caution.

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of BBC Music Magazine.


Brahms pic: Getty Images