What is a forgery and why can't a piece of music be forged? Here is a pretty good Wikipedia article about art forgery. The interesting thing might be that forging artworks could well be more lucrative than forging $100 bills. The reason is that a forged artwork could be worth millions of dollars, which is a lot of $100 bills. Also, there are a lot of very highly-trained professionals working full time to catch people that forge currency, but far fewer are working on uncovering forged works of art. Also, the $100 bills are designed to be hard to forge, but artworks are not. And the means of detecting a forgery vary greatly depending on the period and medium. How would you detect a Rauschenberg forgery? Or one of Mark Rothko?
Now, why can't you forge a piece of music? In my previous post I explained it like this:
[A forgery] can only be done with so-called 'autographic' works, ones of which there can only be one original. According to the theory of Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art this cannot be done with so-called 'allographic' works such as music, dance and theater where the history of the production of the work is not essential to the value of the artwork. There can be hundreds of copies, both written and printed, of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and thousands of performances and they can all be authentic as long as they follow the specifications of the score. In this theory it is inherently impossible to forge a Beethoven symphony even though you might be able to forge a manuscript copy of one.The core of the problem is the ontological nature of music or any performing art. A Beethoven symphony exists in the original manuscript, but also in the printed editions and in accurate performances. Is a disco version of a Beethoven symphony still the symphony? Only partly, because some of the specifications have been altered significantly. You could get into a lot of philosophical conundrums about this if you get too abstract. You might start asking if a piece of music is still the same piece of music if it is transposed to a different key. The answer is yes because if we look at actual musical practice, singers, for example, often sing music transposed to suit their voice and listeners accept these changes easily. So, same piece. But if you took a Beethoven symphony and transposed it up seven octaves or down seven octaves, that would change its character so much that it would no longer be recognizable as the piece. Similarly, I can recall hearing a very, very bad guitarist practicing an etude by Villa-Lobos and playing it so badly it was at first unrecognizable, even to me, who knew the piece from memory!
This "recognizing" factor is important, I think. By recognizing a performance of a piece of music with which we are familiar, we acknowledge THAT it is a performance of that piece. An unrecognizable performance is one that is in some way, NOT that piece. As I said before, the history of the production is not important, but the character is. You can take a Beethoven symphony, accurately record it, subject it to some kind of cryptography and, as long as you are able to decode it later on, you can play it back and it will be, ontologically, that same symphony. This is exactly what happens every day as nowadays, all recordings are digital, which means that analog sound waves are transformed into zeros and ones with an analog to digital converter and then the process is reversed on playback.
Now here is where it gets interesting and I don't recall reading any discussion of this point: can you "recognize" a symphony as being by Beethoven if it is not actually by him, but a clever imitation? Before you answer, let me mention a symphony that for a very long time was thought to be by Mozart as he himself passed it off as his own work. In my previous post I discussed it:
Occasionally composers do something a bit nefarious when they take music from another composer and pass it off as their own. In 1783 Mozart took a symphony by Michael Haydn, revised the wind parts throughout and added a slow introduction to the first movement. He then performed it in a concert along with his Symphony No. 36, where it was undoubtedly accepted as his own work. That most of the symphony was actually by Michael Haydn wasn't discovered until 1907.Michael Haydn was Joseph Haydn's less-talented brother. So, for over a hundred years people "recognized" this as a symphony by Mozart when it mostly wasn't. So why couldn't someone "forge" a Beethoven symphony and sell the original manuscript, suitably aged, for lots of money? I imagined how this might happen as follows:
However, it is certainly possible to create a parody of a work by Beethoven. Imagine a musicologist, a composer and a manuscript forger getting together and writing a new composition so closely imitating the style of Beethoven that it could fool not only listeners but also professional musicians and other musicologists. Once written, the score would be handed over to a forger who would create, on old paper and with old inks, an exact facsimile of a typical Beethoven manuscript, scribbles and all. This could then be announced to the world and given a big premiere. This is highly unlikely for many reasons. First of all, there wouldn't be the millions of dollars of potential profit enough to attract people good enough to bring it off. Second, we have a pretty extensive knowledge of Beethoven's life and it would be difficult to find a niche big enough for a whole symphony to have been composed with no clues in the biographical material.The more I think of it, the less likely it seems. Mozart's works are so numerous and of such a wide range of quality (he began composing when he was five years old!) and so varied in style (his father wrote to him that he could imitate any style) that it is quite possible to be mistaken about the authenticity of a piece by Mozart. He actually wrote only a bit more than half of his Requiem, which was finished by a student, but we accept the whole of it as "Mozart". But with Beethoven, the situation is a bit different.
For one thing, as I mention, we know Beethoven's biography so well, and have so much documentary evidence in the form of sketchbooks and conversation books that finding a way to squeeze a new symphony by Beethoven into the narrative would be extremely difficult. On another level entirely, each symphony by Beethoven, even ones like the Symphony No. 8, are so individual, so unique, that it is frankly beyond the bounds of the believable to imagine someone being able to come up with a new Beethoven symphony. Each one is like a milestone in music history. Mind you, so is Schubert's unfinished symphony, which languished unperformed for decades before it was discovered by Schumann. But this was an authentic symphony by Schubert, and one of earth-shaking importance. I believe very firmly that the only person who could really write a Beethoven symphony was Beethoven! Simply while it is certainly possible to copy the style, say, of the Eroica or the Pastoral, but it is not possible, I firmly believe, for someone to originate a piece in a new Beethoven style. Because this is what he did: he invented a new style, a new idiom for each symphony. And that is what you can't copy.
Beethoven wrote ONE Moonlight Sonata and ONE Hammerklavier Sonata and never imitated himself, which is why you can't write a new piano sonata in the style of Beethoven unless you can write one that is as different from both of those sonatas as they are from one another.
So this is why you can't forge a piece of music, though you can certainly plagiarize one...
Let's listen to those two piano sonatas, just to underline the point. First, the Moonlight Sonata, first movement:
And now the first movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata: