Mystery Composer, or The Reluctant Count

Jul 1, 2009

AUDIO PIECE AT END This would have been a good case for the History Detectives. Count Unico Wilhem van Wassenaer was a Dutch nobleman whose identity as the composer of a set of six very fine concerti grossi was a secret for over two hundred years.  The "Concerti Armonici" were publish in 1740 and first believed to be written by the violinist Carlo Ricciotti, who wrote a dedication on the printed score. In 1755 Handel's London publisher reprinted them, and for a time they were thought to be by Handel, such was the high quality of the music. And finally in 1908, the Library of Congress in Washington purchased a 19th Century copy with the music attributed to Giovanni Pergolesi (another important Baroque composer). And so things stood until 1979 when a Dutch musicologist found the manuscripts in the Count's Castle in the Netherlands. Apparently van Waasenaer deliberately hid his identity as the composer of this fine music. He came from a family of great wealth and power and moved in very high diplomatic circles. Maybe it didn't seem appropriate for a nobleman to be publishing music, or perhaps he wasn't confident enough in his works. It seems it was Ricciotti, who had played first violin in private performances of this music with the Count, who urged him to let them be published. Van Wassenaer agreed on the condition that he not be identified as the composer. What may also have helped fool people for so long was the Italian style in which the music was written.  It was known that the Count had gone on a Grand Tour as a young man, which typically would have included visits to Paris and Italy, and other great music centers. He must have been an extremely good amateur musician to write music in this manner of such sensitivity and melodic beauty. It apparently fooled Igor Stravinsky, who used some of Wassenaer's music in his 1920 ballet Pulcinella, thinking it was by Pergolesi. I first became aware of these wonderful concertos by this "mystery composer" in a fine recording from 1983 by the Academy of St.  Martin in the Fields with Neville Marriner (I don't know if that's still available). They've been recorded since then by a few more groups, including I Musici de Montreal (also a fine one), and more recently on period instruments by the Aradia Ensemble. If you're a regular listener to "Symphony at 7,"  the music that recently has been filling out the hour going up to 8pm is by Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer, a minor mystery revealed if you've heard some music that you couldn't quite place, but hopefully enjoyed. Here's an entire movement from the third of the six "Concerti Armonici": [audio:concertiarmonici]