In 1843, the London newspaper Dramatic and Musical Review wrote a scathing attack on the French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).
“Berlioz, musically speaking, is a lunatic; a classical composer only in Paris, the great city of quacks.
His music is simply and undisguisedly nonsense.”
Harsh words indeed.
In his native Paris critic Pierre Scudo wrote of Berlioz,
“Not only does [he] not have any melodic ideas, but when one occurs to him,
he does not know how to handle it, for he does not know how to write.”
Scudo also said,
“There is nothing in these strange compositions but noise, disorder, a sickly and sterile exaltation.
He gasps, he prances, he fidgets, he behaves like a demon disinherited of divine grace.”
In 1850, Berlioz was understandably fed up of the criticism he faced. He had written a 4-part work for choir based on the story in Matthew’s gospel of the shepherds leaving Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Berlioz entitled the piece The Shepherds Farewell – L’adieu des bergers.
He was not looking forward to hearing what the critics had to say so to amuse himself and his close friend, Joseph-Louis Duc, he pretended the work had been written by an imaginary composer who Berlioz named Pierre Ducré.
Berlioz even came up with a fake backstory for Ducré. He was the forgotten but brilliant music master of the Parisian church Sainte-Chapelle back in 1679.
Also that this particular work was written on ancient parchment and discovered behind a wall during the restoration of the Sainte-Chapelle – the demolition of the wall had revealed a hidden music cupboard. Berlioz also decided that the work had been written in archaic notation which he’d had terrible trouble deciphering!
This fantastical tale would have stayed an inside joke between the two friends had not Berlioz needed a short work for his next concert so he added L’adieu des bergers to his concert programme.
He decided to continue with the joke and told his choir and orchestra that L’adieu des bergers really was written by the imaginary Pierre Ducré. Everyone loved this new Ducré piece. In rehearsals, the choir was fascinated by this simple anthem. Someone asked where it had been “unearthed” and Berlioz repeated his fantastical tale about finding it during the renovations.
At its first performance on 12th November 1850, L’adieu des bergers was a huge hit. The reviews of ‘Ducré’s work’ were sensational! Critics despaired that the music world had lost sight of this Parisian genius. They praised Berlioz for dragging Pierre Ducré out of obscurity.
Berlioz was highly amused by the critics’ reaction but quickly confessed his subterfuge. Although when L’adieu des bergers was published, Berlioz wrote following beneath his own name
Attributed to Pierre Ducré, imaginary maitre de chapelle.