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The Taste of Scandal by John Axelrod ©2016


Scandals in music history seem a dime a dozen. The degree of those scandals are probably minor, but the act itself is still enough to make purists grumble. As noted recently, even If Angela Gheorghiu doesn't come on stage on time, scandal ensues, but the show still goes on.

In the world of wine, there are scandals of substitution and ill intent. Probably the most famous are what is known as the “Jefferson Bottles.” In 1985, Christopher Forbes, who possesses a name known for money, purchased what was believed to be a bottle of Lafite from 1787, complete with the carved initials in the bottle, Th. J., said to be once owned by the US president Thomas Jefferson, for an astounding £105,000. Another conspicuously named man, a Herr Rodenstock, sold the bottle, as well as others purchased by yet another appropriately named money man, Herr Koch, for $500,000. But it was determined when trying to exhibit the wines at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, that Christie’s wine expert and sommelier Michael Broadbent’s authentication was less than authentic. Books were written, lawsuits were filed, and in the end, the wine remains unverified, proving that was a lot of money to pay for some purple grapes and three initials.

Barber’s School for Scandal Overture is a work that might encompass the story of a scandal between nobles in the 18th century. But the music itself is not scandalous; it is marvelous. There are other version of musical scandals, but I do not feel there is any real conspiracy if music should make the public boo or should Steve Reich’s Four Organs cause musical purists to scream “Please stop!…I confess!” Public opinion is hardly scandalous. What is scandalous is the idea of someone writing in the name of the other, just as the real scandal of wine is when a vintner puts stock juice into a bottle of Premier Cru Bordeaux, charging millions when something should be worth pennies.

Here is a good example of what I mean: Due to what is known as the “Pinot Effect” made famous by the 2004 film Sideways, Gallo USA began marketing “Red Bicyclette” made from grapes sourced and bottled in France by the Sieur d’Arques co-operative to satisfy the rich US market. From January 2006 to March 2008, 18 million bottles were sold in the US and no one guessed that anything was wrong. In fact it was the French authorities that found the fraud when they realized the “Red Bicyclette” used 30% more Pinot Noir than was actually produced in the whole of the Languedoc. Instead, it was found that most of the wine was from poor Merlot and Syrah grapes, with only a bit of Pinot.

How could they get away with it for so long? Could the consumer and controllers not smell or taste it wasn’t a Pinot? Did not the very dark and deep color of the Syrah give it away?

Nevertheless, having profited over 7 million € from the scandal, the growers and members of Sieur d’Arques eventually were fined and some were sent to jail.

Here is another scandal: In 2012, a crafty man named Rudy Kurniawan put cheap wine into bottles and glued on fake labels from the world’s rarest wines. He sold them for millions for many years until the FBI finally caught him. This unfortunately happens all too often. Wine Spectator reports that as much as 5% of wine sold in secondary markets could be counterfeit.

According to Maureen Downey, founder of winefraud.com, if people could authenticate by taste alone, wine counterfeiting would not be possible. "The problem is, no one has the palate to know what all of these old wines taste like. ... Wine is a living thing and it changes with time.”

So is music. Leonard Bernstein, Paul McCartney and Osvaldo Golijov all composed high-profile, living music that wasn't entirely theirs. They used orchestrators (Bernstein used Sid Ramin in West Side Story), musical collaborators (Richard Rodney Bennett in McCartney’s concert works) and assistant melodists (Golijov’s Sidereus) to help make their sound and style.

But while many composers farm out tasks to students and assistants with full transparency, the scandal surrounding the Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi goes far deeper. The man known as “Japan’s Beethoven” — because he supposedly continued to compose despite an alleged hearing loss — admitted that he had hired someone else to write his music for over 20 years. Apparently, his ghost writer told the truth about how little he had been paid and claimed that Samuragochi’s deafness was all an act.

Perhaps one of the most interesting scandals in music history is the ghost writer, Andrea Luchesi, probably at the heart of one of music’s most unsolved mysteries. Did he actually compose some music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in their name? I leave that answer for the musicologists. The ear is like the tongue. We cannot tell by what we hear as much as what we taste. Perhaps it is better instead to take a good bottle of a more affordable 2012 Lafite and listen to Mozart’s Concerto in F Major and the cadenza attributed to Andrea Luchesi and just enjoy. Scandal never tasted so sweet.

John Axelrod
©Copyright 2016