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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.

If you believe Rohan Kriwaczek, author of An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin, funerary violin is a previously unknown musical genre that was virtually extinguished by the mid-19th century in the Great Funerary Purges, said to be ordered by the Vatican.

But as first reported in The New York Times, violin dealers, string-instrument publications and other experts say there is no evidence of the funerary violin genre, forgotten or otherwise.

Despite the questions of authenticity, the book's U.S. publisher, Overlook Press, still plans to release the book, which includes pictures of legendary funerary violin composers like Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss, musical scores and information on the Guild of Funerary Violinists.

Peter Mayer, the publisher of Overlook Press, bought the manuscript. Even though he had doubts about the authenticity of the material, he was hooked.

"I decided it didn't really matter to me how much of this was actually accurate. It was a life's work. [Kriwacezk] was dedicated to this guild not being forgotten, dedicated to the music. I decided this is just an amazing piece of work, and I wanted to publish it," Mayer says.

In his book, Kriwaczek writes about "funerary duels" in France in the 1810s: Two violinists improvised on a fragment of melody, attempting to draw more tragedy from it than his opponent; the winner was the artist who drew the most tears from the assembled crowd.

"Who knows if it's true, but it's unbelievable reading," Mayer says.

Author Kriwaczek issued a statement Thursday, in which he writes that to call his work 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, etc."

And he notes that as a funerary violinist himself, he has performed at more than 50 funerals throughout southeast England.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.

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