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EXPLORING MUSIC: A Remarkable Set / Pergolesi's Six Concerti Armonici

The MHS Review 396 Vol. 11, No. 18, 1988

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David M. Greene


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Last weekend, at the institution of higher learning at which I allegedly teach, it was a combination of Founder's Day (on which occasion honorary degrees are doled out) and the hundredth anniversary of our neo­-Gothic Packer Memorial Chapel. Because of the double celebration a considerable number of VIPs was feted at various meals, and Saturday evening Leontyne Price, in glorious form, sang for 90 minutes in the Chapel. For some reason I was chosen to give, post-dinner, what were described as "remarks" on Miss Price's program. The first thing I had to tell them was that the Handel aria with which she was to begin was a fraud (whether she knew it or not), it having presumably been written by one Siegfried Ochs around the turn of this century.

There are probably as many imposters among musical compositions as there are among the ancient sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum. Some have been the result of honest mistakes by musicologists; some, like those of Henri and Marius Casadesus (e.g. "Mozart's" "Adelaide" Violin Concerto, "Handel's" viola concer­to), have been, apparently, deliberate frauds; and some have been the products of the unscrupulousness of opportunist publishers (see, e.g., the innumerable works wrongly ascribed to Joseph Haydn).

One composer whose reputation was ag­grandized in perhaps all three ways was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Pergolesi (born in Jesi in 1710) enjoyed a modest success in his lifetime, but he insured his immor­tality (like certain modern rock "stars") by dying young (at 26, of tuberculosis). After­wards his setting of the Stabat mater became (in innumerable corrupt versions) the most published piece of music in his century, and his modest two-singer com­ic opera La serva padrona (The maid as boss) precipitated a musical revolution in France.

Two Sundays ago, as the Deems Taylor redivivus of the Lehigh Valley, I had to ex­plain to the Community Concert audience gathered to hear violinist Leland Chen that when Stravinsky wrote his Pulcinella on Pergolesi themes, he was not aware that half of them were not by Pergolesi. After the latter was safely in the ground, publishers rushed into print all sorts of things (operas, cantatas, songs, sonatas, concerti) under his name.

Not among these was this remarkable set of Concerti armonici or "concertinas," published in The Hague in 1740. No com­poser is named, but the title page bears a dedication to a Count Bentinck or de Ben­tinck from a certain C[arlo] Ricciotti, who takes responsibility for the publication. In a letter to the count, Ricciotti implies that they are by an important person (probably socially) who prefers to remain anonvmous.

MHS published the Paillard recording (no longer available) under Ricciotti's name. Schwann similarly used to list some recor­dings. Who was Ricciotti? He was a violinist, known also as "Bacciccia," who taught Count Bentinck and who could con­ceivably have written music. But he ap­pears to have composed nothing else. And where does Pergolesi come in? He comes in via a manuscript copy in our Congres­sional Library that (confusingly) attributes the concerti on one title page to Pergolesi and on another to Handel. Though their texture is reminiscent of the latter, Filip­po Caffarelli, editor of the Mussolini-era Complete Works of Pergolesi, claimed them for his man.

Though "ascribed to Pergolesi" became a convenient handle for these pieces, few musicologists bought it. Some thought them perhaps part of a set of concerti by Johann Adam Birckenstock, announced for publication in Amsterdam in 1730. As recently as 1980, Grove was ascribing them to Fortunato Chelleri (formerly Keller), a Parmese composer, principally of operas, who died in 1757. Since then the real author has come to light, proving the sur­mise about his anonymity correct.

In a manuscript full of self-deprecatory annotations in his own hand, he is reveal­ed as Count Unico Wilhelm von Wassenaer, who is not even listed in Grove. The works were heard by the modest count and his friends in a series of private performances in which Ricciotti played first violin. Evidently Ricciotti (cor­rectly) thought better of them than their author, who might be known as one of the great composers of his day had he had the courage of his convictions.

Review of Neville Marriner Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/ Six Concerti Armonici--attributed to Armonici page 63

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