Meticulously forged 17th-century music books discovered in a Venetian library


The manuscripts include foundational arias from the history of opera, a genre that emerged in the early 17th century. Credit: Michel Garrett, Penn State

In 1916 and 1917, a musician and bookseller by the name of Giovanni Concina sold three richly decorated 17th-century songbooks to a library in Venice, Italy. Now, over 100 years later, a Penn State musicologist has discovered that the manuscripts are fakes, meticulously crafted to look old but actually fabricated just before they are sold to the library. Manuscripts are rare among musical forgeries as long as the songs are genuine, but the books are counterfeit.

Uncovering deception was not what Marica Tacconi, professor of musicology and associate director of the Penn State School of Music, set out to do when she began her research at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice in 2018. While on her sabbatical there, she had planned to spend the fall semester studying “echo effects” in 17th century music – phrases that are sung by the lead singer and then repeated “in echo” by one or more additional singers.

While searching the library’s database for songs incorporating echo effects, Tacconi came across a particular book. Cataloged as 17th century, it certainly looked the part. It was bound in worn leather and embellished with brass bosses or metal knobs that serve to elevate and protect the book from the table surface. Inside, the paper showed some signs of deterioration, even including an occasional wormhole. The first page revealed an elaborate letter “T”, indicating the beginning of the song “Tu mancavi a tormentarmi” by Antonio Cesti. The music itself was written with heart-shaped note heads, and the bottom of the page displayed the coat of arms of the Contarini family, one of the most important and influential Venetian families.

“It was a beautiful and elegantly produced book,” Tacconi said. “I was immediately intrigued. But I also felt that something was wrong.

Teach students about manuscripts

Marica Tacconi, professor of musicology and associate director of the Penn State School of Music, teaches the manuscripts to students at Penn State. Credit: Michel Garrett, Penn State

Further research led to the discovery of two other manuscripts, also sold by Concina and very similar in format, design and content. Considered as a set, the three books preserve 61 compositions by 26 Italian composers, all written between 1600 and 1678. According to Tacconi, an expert in the music, art and culture of modern Italy, the typical music of the 17th century anthologies focus on one or a few composers.

“The books included a strange conglomerate of composers, from very famous ones, like Giulio Caccini, Claudio Monteverdi and Francesco Cavalli, to lesser known names. This was unusual in the 17th century, when music anthologies tended to have more monographic content, ”she said. “Moreover, 17th-century scribes would not have had access to such a wide range of music, as many of these pieces had not yet been printed and existed only in manuscripts that did not circulate widely.

Despite her suspicions about the authenticity of the manuscripts, Tacconi was enthusiastic about the music itself.

Music example

Considered as a set, the three books found by Tacconi retain 61 compositions by 26 Italian composers, all written between 1600 and 1678. Credit: Michel Garrett, Penn State

“The manuscripts include arias that have been fundamental in the history of opera – a genre that emerged in the early 17th century,” she said. “They include musical gems that can tell us a lot about the origins and development of opera.”

Upon further investigation, she realized that much of the music in the manuscripts had been extracted, note by note, from a number of music books of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. century.

“The music copied from the manuscripts exhibited some strange editorial quirks that you can see in early 20th century editions, but which would not have appeared in 17th century sources,” said Tacconi, who conducted a review. detailed comparison of manuscripts with more modern books.

This kind of careful comparison has proven to be particularly fruitful in proving the fabricated nature of the manuscripts. Tacconi’s knowledge of a little-known twentieth-century book in particular, “Handbuch der Musikgeschichte” by Hugo Riemann (1912), verified his suspicions. For example, one of the manufactured manuscripts included the song “Torna o torna pargoletto” by Jacopo Peri, which originally appeared in “Musiche” by Piero Benedetti – a songbook published in 1611. Riemann included it in its “Handbuch”, but with some modifications. Tacconi noticed these small but significant variations – a wrong note, a misspelling of a word.

“It was obvious that the maker copied the music from Riemann’s 1912 publication and not the 1611 copy,” she said. “It was the ‘smoking gun,’ confirmation that these books were indeed fake.”

Tacconi noted that the books are unique among musical forgeries in that most forgeries falsify the music itself.

“While the music preserved in these books is authentic, the manuscripts themselves are the work of one or more manufacturers who, working with several scribes and decorators, have deployed extraordinary means to make the volumes appear authentic,” said she declared. “The books were clearly designed to resemble those created for large Venetian homes in the 17th century. It’s no surprise that library staff didn’t recognize them as fakes. At first glance, they seem genuine, but once we take a close look at the music and notice the editorial quirks, we detect the subtle traces of a 20th century maker.

Tacconi said it’s impossible to know if Concina, who died in 1946, was the mastermind behind the fakes or if he came into possession of the books without knowing their fabricated nature.

Regardless of who generated the fakes, an important question is “Why did they do it?” “

“Monetary gain was probably not the primary driver,” Tacconi said, explaining that the library paid Concina the equivalent of about $ 220 in today’s cash for one of the manuscripts. “It’s a relatively small amount, which doesn’t really justify all the time and effort put into producing these books. Instead, what we have perhaps is an example of manufacturers eager to cheat the experts. “

Plus, she said, the forgers could have been motivated by a love for the music and the times. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” after all.

“Twentieth-century musicians and publishers often idealized seventeenth-century music as particularly elegant, and this elegance is something you see very clearly in the visual aspects of the three manuscripts,” Tacconi said. “They are beautiful and ornate; their decorations include butterflies, birds and cupids; the notes are heart shaped. The fact that forgers strove to represent this elegance tells us something about the attitudes of forgers towards the music of this era. Now knowing that these books were created in the early twentieth century, the manuscripts and their content actually provide an opportunity to study the late Romanticist tradition known as “arie antiche” or “gemme antiche”, which has seen collectors of music, musicians and audiences are drawn to the antiquity of Italian Baroque solo vocal music.

Reference: “Three Forged“ Seventeenth-Century ”Venetian Songbooks: A Cautionary Tale” by Marica S. Tacconi, Spring 2021, 17th century music journal.

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