Fiction Feature – The Mozart Scholar


In the end, it didn’t take long, after all. Just a few still minutes. Then it was all over. The game was ended and the masquerade exposed.

He always knew it would be. Six years was a good run to pretend to be an intellectual. A person with a mind, a passion and an understanding. Writing, speaking, conferring, engaging, debating, questioning, gossiping, presenting. All of the tricks of the trade.

For a time he was the doyen of the trade. The “man” of the moment. The guru of musicology. The man who had discovered not just one, but two Mozart symphonies in an attic in Vienna. The man who had restored, nurtured and authenticated them. The man who had all of the world’s attention as the greatest Mozart scholar and detective of all time. His account of the find, his story of the reconstruction of the decaying manuscripts, his portrayal of the diligence and depth of research to ensure that they were real had reached every music student in the world – all was still possible, provided we engaged in scholarship and study.

The first performance of the symphonies – both in one day, each with a different orchestra and a different conductor – had been variously described as “the greatest musical event of the century”, “a triumph of music, research and rehearsal” and as “one of the most intriguing days in the life of any musician”. Two Mozart symphonies yet unread, unplayed and unknown, all played on one day.

The recordings sold well, and a small percentage of the revenues had accrued to him. But his big return came from the film rights for a manuscript he had written which fictionalised both the writing of the symphonies in the last six months of Mozart’s life and his discovery of the manuscripts and then his work to bring them to life. Not only did the sale of this film script make him wealthy, it made him a celebrity and a person in demand.

In a single year, he made seven documentary program appearances, including three full length accounts of his work. He was variously portrayed as a scholar who stumbled on an amazing find; an entrepreneur-academic who was always searching for the “big chance” , who finally found what he was looking for; and even as someone with a mystical connection to a mysterious voice of Mozart, the voice directing him to the manuscripts.

One of these documentaries, shown on the SouthBank Show in Britain and repeated in Canada and the US on PBS, portrayed him as a brilliant scholar, relentlessly pursuing a hunch and then rigorously researching a find. It was a powerful portrayal of scholarship at its best – a documentary which needed to be made about the funding of the arts within Universities, then as now massively under threat. “His work was proof”, the interlocutor intoned, “that investment in scholarship in the arts produced results that benefited community, culture and common understanding”.

Whatever the truth of the claim, this documentary was one of the factors that led to the offer of his tenured Professorship at Kings College, Cambridge – a considerable step up from his junior lectureship at Keele. Named the Lord Stevas Chair of Music, after a recent peer who took to drink, music and vitriol, his tenure began with a triumphant lecture on Bach, Mozart and Britten and Other Popular Music – Themes Across an Age in which he showed how six common tunes, that were also to be found in the music of Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, Blue Rodeo and k.d.lang, were also found across the great masters and used extensively by Bach, Mozart and Benjamin Britten. The BBC carried the lecture live, while several other broadcasters bought rights. Again he made money.

What surprised him about Cambridge was the absence of suspicion and the pursuit of glee. As he remarked to one of the women who attached herself to him almost as soon as his Gladstone bag had been deposited with the proctors for delivery to his room, “its as if the Cambridge glee club is delighted to have found a new performer for their weekly ritual glee club meeting!”. For performer he was expected to be.

The Master of Kings College, Lord McLeith, invited him to dinners, buffets, soirĂ©e’s, chats and other meetings with worthies, donors, significant alumni and others. So frequent were these invitations they affected his ability to meet with students. He was listed as available for no more than two hours each week for student time, and only for students with exceptional abilities in musicology. There were few such students, and even fewer specializing in his own areas of expertise.

It was at one of these meetings arranged by the Master that seeds of doubt about the Mozart symphonies began to be planted. Michael Meckmore, once a leading programmer at from a well known company, and now a self made billionaire who had developed expert systems which run on computers and solve problems faster than human experts can, suggested that it would not be difficult to program an expert system with all the works of Mozart now on compact disc and ask the expert computer system to use the patterns of musical writing it discerns to develop new Mozart music – string quartets, symphonies, chamber music, overtures – provided that a basic theme for a tune or set of tunes were provided. Meckmore called it “neural networking” – a kind of systematic look for how Mozart created patterns within his scores and then an attempt to replicate this way of thinking for a new melody. The Master looked sceptically at Meckmore and said dryly “I wonder if the machine could do the same with the performance of certain horses at Redcar, in which case we would all be better off..” – a line which secured the dismissal, for the time being at least, of Meckmore’s more serious proposal.

Unfortunately for the newly inaugurated Stevas Professor of Music, the billionaire software developer did not leave his idle thought at the dinner table. In fact, he began work on the idea almost immediately, sensing commercial success in providing millions with the ability to compose like Mozart, Bach, Britten, Pearl Jam or anyone, provided they rigorously followed the requirements of entering all known work by the chosen composer into the system. Within a week of the ill-fortuned dinner, sixteen people were working on prototypic software, aiming at a release of “Just Like Mozart” and “Just Like Brahms” and “Just Like Purcell” in time for Christmas.

Eight weeks after the Masters dinner with Meckmore, the Stevas Professor of Music was invited to attend a performance of Mozart’s most recent symphony, written just a week before hand. The Orchestra Romantique under the baton of Maestro Bernard Hublik was to perform. All the press had been invited. One from The Guardian in particular had started to detect a theme – the idea that computer technology may help look at the similarity and dissimilarity between well-known Mozart works and the two new symphonies recently unearthed by the doyen of Cambridge music circles and well known profiteer of culture. The hawk was off the sleeve and searching for prey.

The performance of Meckmore’s Mozart symphony was a gala. Everyone who was everyone, and some who were no one but knew one, was there. Minor royals mixed with major scholars; reporters with debutantes; movie stars with maharaja’s. The music was well performed and stylishly conducted, but most important, at least for the future of our Professor, was the short lecture given at the end of the performance by Meckmore.

The gist of the lecture was simple. Expert systems were now so sophisticated that they could take a melody and “Mozart” it but, more intriguingly, they could take a Mozart piece and locate it in the cannon of Mozart’s work. By looking at the underlying patterns of the music – how its counterpoint was written, the styling of the orchestration, the phrasing of the instrumentation and so on – the “expert system” could tell which piece of Mozart’s was written with the same or similar patterns and which were “most like” and “least like” the particular work.

No one paid much attention, except our hawk from the Guardian. As questions were asked, he stood, poised and erect, and began.

“Is what you are saying, Mr. Meckmore, that we could take the two recently found symphonies of Mozart and work out just where they came from in terms of the sequence of Mozart’s work?”

“Yes, that is what I am saying..we could accurately link the three symphonies to works he composed at roughly the same time.”

“Would this also confirm that the works are Mozart’s own and not written by a student of his or a profiteer?”, asked the reporter.

“My understanding,” offered Meckmore, “is that the works have already been authenticated by scholarship unmatched in the history of musicology and that the issue is not whether Mozart wrote these symphonies, but when and under what circumstances, is that not correct Professor?” he asked, turning the attention of some six hundred people towards our scholar.

“I believe that Mr. Meckmore is essentially right, except for one thing. The Mozart manuscripts from Vienna are dated. We know exactly when the scores were written – June 1733 through to October of that same year.”

“I only observe, Professor, that dates are one source of information:most burdens of proof require confirmation by at least two other sources”, said Meckmore.

“So, its not yet established when these were written, or even by whom ?” asked our hawk, swirling above his prey.

“Look. We will run the new symphonies through our system and report on our findings, will that satisfy you ?” asked Meckmore of the journalist, who simply nodded without smiling, though those around him suggested later that his eyes shone and teeth glistened.

The Professor was troubled. Deeply troubled. This simple interchange – which took less than a minute – was the beginning of an unravelling which would damage him and one other. Damage that would be irreparable. Damage that would challenge many, leave scars and burn at the heart of academic integrity.

First thoughts were of refusing to co-operate. Then he realised that his co-operation was not being requested – the symphonies were publicly available, all that had to happen was that the recordings were fed into a computer. His second thought was to prepare his escape. He ensured that funds were moved into accounts abroad that were not subject to scrutiny, he hired one of the most expert lawyers on fraud and contract law he could find and briefed her to expect his urgent need of her services. He purchased a retreat home in Mexico and waited for the storm.

He did not have to wait long. Seven weeks later, a story appeared in The Guardian outlining the findings of the Meckmore project. The truth was out – the symphonies were actually pieced together sequences of existing Mozart music, orchestrated in the style of the last two known and well played symphonies. Not a single sequence of ten bars or more of the symphonies were new, they were directly taken from existing string quartets, oboe concerto’s, harpsichord works and opera’s and patched together with sophisticated linkages. The author of the piece, who cited “informed sources”, observed that “while clever, the fraudulent claims about these works will raise questions about the legality of certain claims made with respect to the symphonies and may lead to serious questions about the legitimacy of the appointment of the Stevas Professor of Music”.

At a press conference later that day, Meckmore confirmed the story in the Guardian and went further – he produced the scores for each symphony showing exactly where the elements had come from and used this as proof of the veracity of his expert systems.

His departure from Cambridge took place quietly on the same day the story first appeared in the press. By the time Lord McLeith called upon his rooms, he was flying at 37,000 feet en route to Mexico. His lawyer, briefed on the story in an early morning phone call, made clear that her client “had nothing to say about allegations and innuendo contained in press speculation based on unnamed sources about something that happened two hundred years ago” – it was a spirited statement, which showed her at her best. She way buying time. Two days later, she quietly settled his affairs with the University, from which he had now resigned, and began discussions with the record companies and others.

Record sales soared. In the month after the revelation sales exceeded those of any CD in any of the charts – it actually was the number one best selling CD in the world for six weeks. His royalties soared, and the record companies approached him with a suggestion for doing a similar project on Bach or Beethoven or indeed, anyone he would care to chose. But he had had enough. He made another TV documentary, this time in America, on how easy it was to fool the establishment, both academic and musical, and how his lectures were also pieced together from various lectures published by other people. “It is interesting to note,” he states, “that one can rise to the top of a profession on the basis of saying or doing nothing new, but doing nothing new well”. It was a phrase that earned him the praise of the right wing critics of Universities, scholarship, arts institutions and grant giving agencies and led to his new career as a critic of fraud in University research and academic employment and promotion.

Five years after these events, at a meeting of the Council of the Universities of Britain, Lord McLeith, the retiring Master of Kings College Cambraidge, said this:

“Some of you may recall an incident some years ago concerning the misrepresentation of an individual’s own musical tapestry as the work of Mozart – an incident that caused some embarrassment to my own College at the time. I am happy to report to you today that, while we continue to have grave concerns over the incident, a new Centre for the Study of Music and History has been established, following the grant of money and other supports, from the late Lord Meckmore’s Trust.”

In the end, there were no losers. Mozart’s works were more widely listened to and his music more extensively purchased than before. Despite a temporary issue of credibility, the College gained a new Department and five endowed Chairs. The record companies secured record level sales for a classical CD, and the two symphonies are now part of the repertoire of some orchestras, who run a fund raising competition to see how many works the audience can spot. Our hero is now a Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches on the sociology of fraud within Universities – a position he holds, despite never having obtained any qualifications in sociology, which, in a sense, makes his point.

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