Uncovering the 'True' History of the Funerary Violin A forthcoming book traces the lost history of a musical genre too good to be true: funerary violin. Despite questions about the authenticity of the material, the book's U.S. publisher says it's an "amazing piece of work."
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Uncovering the 'True' History of the Funerary Violin

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Uncovering the 'True' History of the Funerary Violin

Uncovering the 'True' History of the Funerary Violin

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.


BLOCK: If you believe Rohan Kriwaczek, this is a wax cylinder recording of a piece called Mask of Death. It's an example of a previously unknown musical genre called funerary violin, which developed during the Elizabethan Protestant Reformation and was virtually extinguished by the mid-19th Century in the great funerary purges believed to be ordered by the Vatican.

That's if you believe Rohan Kriwaczek. Kriwaczek traces the lost history of this unique genre in his book An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin. The book came to the attention of publisher Peter Mayer of Overlook Press at the Frankfort book fair last year. A man claiming to be Rohan Kriwaczek's agent showed the manuscript to Mayer and he was fascinated.

PETER MAYER: I said listen, come by tomorrow and I'll buy your book, I'll publish your book. But there will be a condition. And I said that we'll pay a thousand dollars, or maybe it was a thousand pounds, I can't remember. And I'm sure we'll fail with it. And the condition is that when we come to sign the contract that someone come in who is Rohan Kriwaczek and he should have a passport with him and anything else that will make me feel that this is the real thing.

Well, three weeks later in came a man with passport saying that he was Rohan Kriwaczek and he had a violin with him and he certainly convinced us that he was that person and he took out his violin and played a dirge, a very soulful funerary bit of music, and we signed the contract and that was the beginning.


BLOCK: The book includes pictures of legendary funerary violinists and composers like Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss. Also musical scores and information on the Guild of Funerary Violinists, Britain's oldest surviving artisan society. As publisher Peter Mayer read on, he was hooked.

MAYER: I decided it didn't really matter to me how much of this was actually accurate, because the man didn't want very much money. He didn't say we should market the book heavily. It was a life's work. He was dedicated to this guild not being forgotten. He was dedicated to the music. There were all sorts of aesthetic and music tow. Historical reasons why he thought it was important. And I decided this is just an amazing piece of work and I wanted to publish it.

BLOCK: I like this one detail that I've learned. He talks about the funerary duels that there would be in France in the 1810s. There would be two funerary violinists at a funeral who would improvise on a fragment of melody, each attempting to draw more tragedy from it than his opponent. The winner being the artist who drew the most tears from the assembled crowd.

MAYER: Well you've got it absolutely right. Who knows if this is actually the case or not but it's just unbelievable reading.

BLOCK: Unbelievable, indeed. As first reported in the New York Times, an astute buyer at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City raised suspicions about the book. Violin dealers and string instrument publications were called, and no, there is no funerary violin genre, forgotten or otherwise. Publisher Peter Mayer is undeterred, even though he's not sure what shelf the book belongs on.

MAYER: Nobody could put this in a fiction section of a bookstore. The Art of Funerary Violin with all this morbid images inside, and in fact, when our sales rep called on Barnes and Noble and Borders, the decision made by those chains was to put into music history, as I understand it. Because where else can you put it? So you know, we all live in a world in which everybody wants to categorize something but some books fall betwixt and between.

BLOCK: Well, Peter Mayer, it's good to talk with you. Thanks so much.

MAYER: Well I hope this has been interesting for your audience. It is certainly the strangest book I ever published in my life.

BLOCK: We received a statement today from author and funerary violinist Rohan Kriwaczek. He says to call this a hoax is to misunderstand his intentions. He says he wanted to expand the notion of musical composition to encompass the creation of an entire artistic genre with its necessary accompanying history, mythology, philosophy, social function, etcetera. And he notes that as a funerary violinist himself, he has performed at more than fifty funerals throughout southeast England. You can hear more music and read an excerpt from Rohan Kriwaczek's book at NPR.org.

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