contributo di Anna Trombetta e Luca Bianchini


The conventions and practices of 18th century musical society were very different from today. The 18th century was a time when composers and musicians were frequently subjected to servile conditions of work and when copyright for composers as we know it today did not exist.

In music chapels of Europe (of which there were some 23 in Germany alone in the late 18th century) masters often wrote their music anonymously as a routine convention. They rarely, if ever, wrote their own names on compositions at the chapel. Take a famous example – at Leipzig its Kapellmeister Johann Sebastian Bach (2685-1750) wrote several hundred church cantatas during his time in that city. But few of his manuscripts are signed with his name and those which are have either been loaned or performed externally. It was at such times that these chapel works were attributed to their composer. The norm was definitely for a Chapel Master NOT to sign his own work. And there were good reasons, as we shall see. In practice the composer of a given piece was named only after retirement or death, or in the event that an individual manuscript was performed externally or a copy was requested to be made for external use. Chapel Masters (Kapellmeisters) knew and understood this convention very well. Those employed to copy music, ‘copyists’, understood it too and they never credited copies to the composer on the cover of the score or on its musical parts. Only with ancient composers or works intended for sale outside chapels were works actually given the name of their composer at the time of inventory.

Part of the reason for this practice was that Kapellmeisters reserved the right to vary or alter the content of their works, to improve them continuously, often over the course of their whole careers.  The definitive version of a composition may be that which a Kapellmeister produces just before he retires. Or, of course, that which exists at the time when he dies. Up until retirement or death if was therefore remarkably common for productions to be held anonymously in the archives of their chapels. This was certainly the case at the Bonn Chapel as for all music chapels of Germany, Italy and all other countries of Europe.

A Kapellmeister could and often did compose works for clients outside the chapel as a purely commercial transaction but, in practice, this meant he did so only using the name of another musician. His terms of employment for the chapel made his music property of his employer. So he would use a ‘pen-name’ or ‘nom de plume’ for sale of secular music or for  supplying external works. This too was common practice. Such commissions supplemented the incomes of many official composers. But productions for the chapel remained unsigned in the chapel archives and the Kapellmeister was not paid extra money for writing them.

Chapel masters could and often did sell original music to noblemen, for example, and even to other composers/musicians. (The latter would, on receipt of the music, become its ‘legal author’). Such was the nature of these transactions and they too were remarkably common. We see examples right across Europe. Literally thousands of secular works were created and sold including symphonies. Noblemen thus attributed to their own resident musicians works which, in actual fact, were creations of other composers. This fake paternity was not viewed as immoral at the time. It served to increase the status of a noblemen’s court and of his own musical establishment.

It can be understood, therefore, how important it is that we appreciate these 18th century musical conventions. Works we today call  ‘musical forgeries’ were remarkably common objects of musical commerce. The ‘legal author’ received music for cash from its true composer, recopied it in his own hand and normally destroyed the original. From that time onwards the piece was legally his own work. The true composers could and often did sell music written by them for different occasions or music no more in use. Or it could be attributed to other students to help them in their careers. Works could even be composed and sold to third parties in exchange for money or favours.

In other musical manuscripts of the 18th century we find that only a small part of the work contains a famous melody (whose true composer is named) with all other contents being anonymous creations by other, lesser composers.

It can therefore happen that a given composer is attributed dozens, even hundreds of works by the purchase of his employer which he, the supposed ‘composer’ never actually composed. And there are various examples of this occurring in 18th century archives. To society of the 18th century these were not scandals provided that conventions were respected.

It is easy to see, therefore, that reconstructing the actual achievements of specific 18th century composers is often not as simple or straightforward as we might suppose. The existence of a signature on a manuscript or the fact that it may always have been traditionally attributed to a specific composer is not, in itself, definitive proof of paternity.To achieve a high degree of certainty we must bring to bear all sorts of evidence from all available angles to establish this for each and every piece.

To establish the true paternity of a piece it is also increasingly clear that we must also take in to account the motives of those involved in these processes. The history of music in the 18th century is a particular case in point. For extra-musical, political, social, economic and even sometimes religious motivations were often involved. It can also be shown that attributing music to other composers has often inflated the supposed achievements of composers or has done real damage to others by obscuring their real achievements.  

Luca Bianchini and Anna Trombetta