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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Musical coda: the Joyce Hatto saga

Coda to the previous internal blog:

Not every musical dispute ends in court. This extraordinary event in classical music raises some points about why we appreciate music in the first place. Joyce Hatto was a jobbing concert pianist in the 1960s and 70s. She performed regularly, to distinctly mixed reviews, until one point in 1976 when she collapsed on stage. Thereafter she was neither seen nor heard from in public until decades later, when her producer/arranger husband started to release piano recordings allegedly performed by her. They were of remarkable quality, and the classical music industry – record companies, retailers and critics – were enthralled. A virtuoso was clearly responsible.

It was all the more remarkable for two reasons: first, because Hatto was playing virtually the entire classical repertoire – Rachmananov, Chopin, whoever – which was usually beyond all but the most accomplished pianist; and secondly, because she was in her 70s and in frail health. It was as if a washed up journeyman county cricketer aged about 40 suddenly made a comeback and played to the level of a young Gary Sobers.

In other words, it seemed too good to be true. And so it was proved. Not by one of the learned music critics who had raved about Hatto’s efforts, but by a random Wall Street worker who had uploaded a Hatto CD on his Ipod. Unlike the gullible soi-dissant experts, the computer software could not be fooled, and had identified the actual performer. The story unravelled quickly and Hatto’s husband was found to have used old recordings of talented young performers, which he had manipulated slightly to fool the critics, such as changing the left and right channels, compressing the odd note and lengthening others, and so on.

He had obviously grown lazy over time and hadn’t changed one recording at all, hence the Itunes Gracenote software spotted it immediately. Hatto’s husband has never fully admitted what he was up to. Channel 4 interviewed him recently and elicited Nixonian levels of denial and self-pity.

Hatto herself died before the scandal broke and her husband has never faced legal action, either criminal for his acts of fraud or civil to recover wrongly-paid royalties. I suspect the reason is that he is fairly elderly and, apparently, made very little money from the adventure. Thus the Attorney General would most probably exercise his discretion not to bring a criminal prosecution and the affected record companies and shops wouldn’t consider a civil action worth powder and shot. Both illustrate the flexibility of the law in practice I suppose.

And yet there’s one point that doesn’t quite make sense. Hatto’s rather gullible expert victims were interviewed by Channel 4 and asked what they intended to do with all the Hatto CDs they still owned. All said they would either bin them, or keep them in an old hat box and never play them again. Before they discovered the true performer, however, they had unanimously acclaimed the recordings as sublime. Presumably they still are musically. So why deny oneself the enjoyment they obviously produce? If it is because the putative listeners are irked by the conduct of those responsible, I suggest they don’t put on a Wagner CD instead.


  1. They may have been deriving enjoyment from the music in the belief that it was being played by a frail old woman. Now that the truth is out, they can't get that enjoyment. So it kind of makes sense. But you're right that they could still enjoy the music on the CDs for what it is in itself.

  2. I imagine they're sulking for having been fooled. After all, their original praise wasn't "these are great recordings considering the age of the performer" but that they were great recordings full stop.