Wednesday, September 4, 2019

HOAX! The musical fossil that fooled the world

Blogger's note. For a couple of decades now, there has been a rumor, theory, whatever, that SOMEONE out there owns an actual recording of Frederic Chopin playing his famous Minute Waltz. This was supposedly recorded in 1845, decades before the first commercial music recordings in the 1880s, and well before the famous Eduard-Leon Scott de Martinville phonoautogram transcriptions of Au Claire de la Lune.  I actually remember hearing the Chopin recording on the radio some 30 years ago, and the announcer was skeptical, comparing it to the world's most famous anthropological hoax, Piltdown Man. This consisted of a human skull made to look old with sandpaper, with an ape jaw wired on to it. It sat in a museum case unchallenged for 10 years, while anthropologists scrambled to make their theories fit the "evidence". 

The recording, as I remember (it was played twice) did have that garbled, distant, deeply distorted quality of very early, primitive sound recording. It was also very noisy, with irregular thuds like dead bodies hitting the floor. The piano playing was barely audible, and the piece was played at a clip even more absurd than the inane "minute" that pianists still strive for. (The title of Chopin's famous waltz, by the way, translates as Petite Waltz or Little Waltz, and has NOTHING to do with playing it in under a minute. The spirit of Piltdown Man lives.) At the end, it was as if you could hear someone shouting something. George Sand yelling "bravo!", maybe?

The truth about the Minute Waltz recording came out when someone exposed a classical music magazine for perpetrating the hoax to titillate their readers (the CD recording was included in every issue, which is strange because none of them seem to exist any more). The issue was released on April 1, which gives us a clue - but does that mean anything?  Was it really a case of time travel? And what about those Leon Scott de-Whatever (God, his name is so long I have to look it up EVERY time) recordings made out of smoke on paper? We're supposed to believe THAT? 

To be honest, for a long time I did not believe any of it and just assumed those thin, wavery, creepy sounds I heard were just another Chopin/Piltdown flimflam. The article below (circa late '80s) is taken from a Polish music newsletter, and it is the only reference I can find anywhere on the internet to the reported Chopin recording. Strangely enough, though the article seems to be confirming the veracity of Hippolyte Sot's pioneering work, I can find no reference to him either. None whatsoever. It's as if he never existed.


While doing construction work in France, the workers dug up an old metal box. Inside the box they found a near faded letter and a glass cylinder. Not knowing what they had found, they turned it over to a local historian who was able to make out the writing. What he discovered was


The letter was written by one Hippolyte Sot, resident of the area in the 1840s. The letter described the techniques he had devised to record audio sounds using a glass cylinder. It went on to say that despite his efforts he was unable to obtain any interest nor recognition for his work. He therefore buried the details of this invention in the metal box along with one sample recording. The recording was none other than

FREDERICK CHOPIN playing his own Waltz in D flat major!

The magazine says that the recording was made about 20 years earlier the those created by Leon Scott, the person normally attributed with the invention of audio recording. It also gives additional detail about the inventor and how the information was retrieved from the glass cylinder. And what's particularly interesting is that H. Sot had NOT invented a playback technique, and it took 20th century technology to recover the audio information recorded on the cylinder.

To get all the details, get a copy of the latest issue of CLASSIC CD magazine. And yes, the CD included with the magazine includes the recording. Its the only recording of Frederich Chopin, and he displays some pretty fantastic playing ability.

That the text above is a hoax you may find out from the following rebuttal:

"The recording of Chopin performing the "Minute Waltz" is a now world-famous musical hoax that was exquisitely executed by the editors of a music magazine devoted to reviews of classical CD's about four-or-five years ago. To be precise, the hoax appeared on a CD that was sent as a free gift to all subscribers of the magazine, arriving with the April issue on April 1.

Now in hindsight, it is easy for those who never heard the CD or read the accompanying "historical" material to laugh at the obvious falsity of the "discovery." However, this hoax was so meticulously researched (it was based on a great deal of esoteric historical evidence that was in fact true)--and the recording itself was so brilliantly faked--that many musicians and musical experts were taken in, at least initially. I first heard the recording broadcast on the radio on the day it appeared. It introduced with great fanfare by an announcer who read about 15 minutes worth of the liner notes, and who called the recording "the musical equivalent of the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankamen." Was I fooled? Absolutely!

The original recording was not claimed to have been made on a cylinder. The basis of the hoax was Sot's experiments in recording sound on disks of glass covered with smoke. His experiments were amazing for their time. He understood the relationship of sound to the wavy lines traced on smoked glass with a diaphragm and a cactus needle. And evidently it was he who first came up with the idea of inscribing sound on a rotating disc--decades before Emil Berliner and Charles Cros were to patent their techniques. However, Sot never got beyond the inscribing stage; he could not figure out a way to play back the vibrations he had inscribed on the smoked glass disks.

The magazine's hoax took it from there, claiming that Sot had buried one of his smoke-covered disks in a sealed glass container in the hope that some day in the future science would have by then figured out a way to play back his precious vibrations. They claimed that the container had been recovered during a subway excavation at Nohant-sur-Seine (near Georges Sand's chateau), and that the sound had been reproduced and transferred by a prestigious French national scientific laboratory using optical lasers and digital conversion techniques.

Moreover, Sot was indeed a neighbor and acquaintance of Georges Sand during the period of her long affair (menage) with Chopin. What could be more natural than for him to have prevailed upon one of the world's two most famous living pianists who just happened to be living next door to play a little something for posterity?

The recording is absolutely fabulous!. First, what little musical sound that is audible is almost entirely covered by a loud continual banging, crashing, gritty surface noise of a kind one has never heard before--ostensibly the pits in the surface of the glass disk. Far in the distance, one can barely hear the tiny but very clear sound of a piano, playing the Minute Waltz from start to finish (in the correct key, of course.)

The most amazing thing about the performance is the tempo--which is insanely fast. Indeed, the piece is played in less than a minute. (BTW, I have read-- elsewhere--that the only pianist to have ever recorded the Minute Waltz in a minute was Liberace--even though the French word "Minute" did not here refer to a minute, but rather 'minute' as in small.) In any event, it is indeed humanly possible to play the piece at that speed. And if not Chopin, who then?"

NOTE: This news item was submitted to us by Dr. Barbara Milewski, a noted Chopin specialist, in response to a request from one of our readers who thought that an original chopin CD may actually exist.

POST-BLOG CONFESSIONS. I cannot find one thing about this story now, even though it's described here as a "world-famous" classical music hoax. But it explains why my first reaction to the Leon Scott recording of Au Claire de la Lune was a dead-certain disbelief. That distant, creepy nasal voice gargled a "tune" featuring only three notes, and could easily have been autotuned from ONE note (and who knows where that might have come from). Not only that,
it was sung at a dragged-out graveyard tempo, so that you wouldn't know it was a "tune", let alone a famous one, unless someone told you. So much was made of it, so many people presented papers and gave press conferences and received prestigious awards that it all smacked of scientific opportunism, not to mention jumping the gun on something very dicey indeed.

I guess I sort of believe it now, but they've mucked around so much with those three suspicious notes that they have been rendered unrecognizable as anything human. There wasn't much follow-up after the initial frenzy, and in fact the First website now looks as dated as anything set up in 2008. I did note that they seem to be backpedalling a bit on the veracity of the technology and how this "music" could possibly have been retrieved:

The Phonautograms of
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

The sound files of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's phonautograms released during 2008 by the First Sounds collaborative were created using the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's virtual stylus technology, which sought to track the wavy lines scratched on soot-covered paper as though they were standard record grooves. However, Scott did not intend his phonautograms to be played back, and from a modern perspective his tracings are often malformed: the recording stylus sometimes left the paper and sometimes moved backwards along the time axis, violating basic assumptions of the “virtual stylus” approach and—for that matter—of sound recording in general. For this reason, we supposed at first that many of Scott ’s phonautograms—particularly the earliest ones—might remain permanently mute.

In late 2008, First Sounds cofounder Patrick Feaster devised an alternate playback approach, graphically converting phonautographic wavy lines into bands of variable width and playing these back using software designed to handle optical film sound track formats. This approach can’t correct serious malformations in Scott’s phonautograms any more than the “virtual stylus” approach can, but it is sufficiently robust to let us hear something from phonautograms that are otherwise too compromised to process. Many phonautograms from 1857 also survive, but they lack the tuning-fork timecode, so in these cases we have no objective means of correcting for speed fluctuations, which are generally great enough to render sung melodies utterly unrecognizable (emphasis mine).

So is First Sounds offering all this explanation as a sort of embarrassed postscript to all the initial huff and puff? I STILL believe this thing will eventually be found out as a total fraud, so that Eduarde-de-Whatsisname will have to join Hippolyte the Sot in the remainder bin of posterity.

Along with. . . 

Joyce Hatto (2007)

Joyce Hatto was an English pianist who rose to prominence in the year preceding her death. Her talent had only been discovered very late in her life, when she was in her seventies. She was noted for being able to masterfully play a wide variety of works, including compositions by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. However, she never played in public. Recordings of her performances were produced by her husband from a private studio. But in 2007, a few months after her death, a critic for Gramophone magazine discovered that none of the recordings attributed to Hatto were actually performed by her. Her husband had been taking recordings of other pianists and claiming they were recordings of his wife.

For a feast of incomprehensibility, I welcome you to sample sound expert Patrick Feaster's bizarre blog, Griffonage: