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The Lewis Legacy-Issue 69, Summer 1996

In the Footsteps of Michelman

Music lovers were thrilled by a front page article in the Times of London on 15 December 1993, announcing the most sensational discovery of the century: “Lost Haydn Sonatas found in Germany.”
The article explained that a distinguished German flautist named Winfried Michel had discovered six Haydn sonatas for the pianoforte in the home of an elderly lady in Muenster whose need for privacy must be respected. Herr Michel had turned over photocopies of the sonatas to one of Europe’s most renowned 18th century musicologists and her husband, Europe’s leading performer of 18th century pianoforte music — Eva and Paul Badura-Skoda.

The couple were thrilled about the sonatas and spent months authenticating them musically. One page was missing, and Michel had made a clumsy attempt to reconstruct it, but he proved to be such a poor composer that Paul did the job over correctly before recording all six sonatas. Then they broke the good news to their friend H.C. Robbins Landon, perhaps the world’s greatest living authority on Hayden. He rates 27 lines in Who’s Who. Among other accomplishments, he founded the Haydn Society in 1949 and used to be Regents Professor of Music at the University of California. He was now residing in a chateau in the south of France.

He agreed to help them announce their find. He persuaded the editor of the BBC’s Music Magazine to publish his endorsement of the sonatas. (The editor knew that Robbins Landon and the Badura-Skodas were top authorities. “Also Herr Michel was a perfectly reputable musician who runs his own music festival locally at Kassel, Germany.”)

Robins Landon also arranged for Harvard University to schedule a 12 February premier performance of the sonatas by Paul Badura-Skoda. And he introduced a festive 16 December press conference in London. There aficionados heard Paul’s recording of one sonata and saw photocopies of the elderly lady’s manuscript. But at this point the first sour note was sounded. Sotheby’s expert in music manuscripts was sure the manuscript had been created in the 20th century.

A major controversy soon erupted. Eva knew from the first that the lady’s manuscript was only a later copy of Haydn’s original. Herr Michel returned to the lady’s house and copied the paper’s watermark by hand for Eva, which convinced her that the lady’s manuscript was made in 19th century Italy.

Eva did not waver until Herr Michel repeatedly failed to produce the manuscript itself as promised, claiming that the elderly lady was too ill to be disturbed. But she was sure that Michel could not have composed such good sonatas because she had seen his clumsy attempt to fill in the missing passage. “If this is a forgery, it is the work of a master forger.” Robbin Landon defended himself similarly: “Of course I accepted them as genuine, and indeed the music is of a very high quality. There is no question about that. If they are forgeries, they are master forgeries. In fact the work of the greatest forger of all time.”

But the director of the Haydn Institute in Germany disagreed: “It was very clear from the first day we saw the documents that they were never genuine.” No one at the Haydn Institute had ever heard of Herr Michel, who turned out to be an obscure 45-year-old high school teacher of the recorder, not a floutist. And he had previously “discovered” music by a couple of 18th century Italians not mentioned in any music directory. One of these works had been brought out on CD, and the local paper discovered that the handwriting on the CD cover was identical to that on the Haydn manuscript. Some of Michel’s high school students reported that he had once played them a sonata and said, “It sounds like Haydn, but it is by me.”

By then the Times had published a “murmuring retraction,” and Harvard had cancelled its February concert. The six lost Haydn sonatas had lasted less than a month.