I read about the incredible story of Joyce Hatto when it was first revealed in 2007 that she was a serial plagiarist. My interest has been reignited by Loving Miss Hatto, a drama written by Victoria Wood and recently televised by the BBC.
Joyce Hatto was described by the Boston Globe as “the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of”. In her 70s and suffering from cancer, she was too ill to play concerts. Yet she released a large and diverse range of recordings. These were produced and released by her husband, William Barrington-Coupe.
Her discography swelled to over 100 CDs in the final years before her death. The CDs, released on Barrington-Coupe’s record label, won widespread acclaim.
After Joyce Hatto’s death in 2006, it was revealed that at least some of her recordings were in fact doctored versions of other recordings by a variety of little-known artists. Today, almost every CD she released is regarded as a fake.
In 2007, William Barrington-Coupe explained that he acted out of love, attempting to please his dying wife whose career had not been as successful as they had hoped. He maintains to this day that Hatto knew nothing of the fraud, and that he simply patched up recordings that she had genuinely made.
Barrington-Coupe’s version of events is met with some scepticism. Forensic examination of the recordings reveals that most recordings were lifted wholesale — with the speed altered and the pitch altered back accordingly.
Critics also point out that among the plagiarised Hatto recordings are concertos. It’s one thing for Hatto to believe that she had recorded so many solo piano pieces. It’s quite another to misremember playing with entire orchestras.
Moreover, Barrington-Coupe continued to release CDs after her death, up until the fraud was discovered. Furthermore, cassettes released as early as 1993 were also revealed to be copies of other people’s recordings.
Questions were also raised about another artist looked after by Barrington-Coupe. Recordings released under the name of Sergio Fiorentino were also found to be fake.
Why did they do it?
There are a number of theories as to what motivated the Joyce Hatto scam.
The drama Loving Miss Hatto presents the couple as working together on the scam after being encouraged following a good review of a genuine Hatto recording. In this story, Hatto gets carried away and begins talking to journalists. William Barrington-Coupe has to hastily create the recordings in order to back up her stories. An interesting story for the TV, but probably not the whole truth.
Barrington-Coupe’s own explanation, that he acted out of love for his wife, does not explain his practices from the 1950s. Nor does it explain the fake recordings by Sergio Fiorentino. However, it may at least explain why Hatto’s discography swelled from around a dozen releases to over 100 in her twilight years.
One other theory goes that Hatto and Barrington-Coupe enjoyed listening to CDs, and would discuss how they could be improved upon. Barrington-Coupe would go away and digitally manipulate these recordings to Hatto’s taste. This way, Hatto could conceivably believe that these were her works, even though she did not record a note.
This would chime with Hatto’s reference to “reworking” a Godowsky piece. But it does not explain those recordings that were not manipulated at all.
Cocking a snook
The most tempting conclusion is that Joyce Hatto and William Barrington-Coupe simply set out to “cock a snook” at the classical music establishment. Hatto is known to have had bad experiences with the Royal Academy of Music. Early in her career, she was told at an audition that “what a young woman really needed to know was how to prepare a roast”.
Barrington-Coupe also readily admits to wanting to show ’em. When asked by Intelligent Life if he set out to mock the musical establishment that had ignored his wife’s talents, his reply was unequivocal: “That’s what I intended to do. That’s what I intended to do. And that’s what she intended to do. But she intended to do it with her own playing.”
He certainly succeeded in making some of the classical music establishment look like fools. After the fraud was revealed, it did not take long for critics’ reviews to be shown to be contradictory. Gramophone writer Bryce Morrison was among those caught out for praising a Hatto recording that he had previously condemned when it was released under the actual performer’s name.
Morrison’s riposte notes that the Hatto versions were in fact different because they had been digitally manipulated. So it is perfectly possible for one to sound better than the other. Perhaps it is Barrington-Coupe’s production skills that really should have been praised.
William Barrington-Coupe has a shady past, with a record of bending the rules long before the Joyce Hatto fraud. In 1966 he was jailed for tax evasion.
His past in the record business also raised questions. He had been involved in the industry since the 1950s. He was said to be chiefly responsible for the collapse of the Saga Films and Records Company, of which he was an employee in 1960.
He set up a string of budget record labels: Delta, Dial, Lyrique, Revolution, Summit, Triumph, and perhaps more. All of them went out of business.
The conductors and artists on Barrington-Coupe’s labels included fictitious people with names like Wilhelm Havagesse (have a guess), Homer Lott and Herda Wobbel. Names of orchestras were also made up. The recordings were plundered from radio broadcasts from behind the iron curtain, among other dubious sources.
As a practice, this was more common in the 1950s and 1960s than it is today. Maybe in those days it was tolerated more. Or perhaps it was just less easy to uncover.
Was the truth staring everyone in the face?
One of William Barrington-Coupe’s labels survived from the 1950s until 2007. Concert Artist was the label on which Joyce Hatto’s recordings were released. I have found the wording of its name odd. Why Concert Artist singular, not Concert Artists plural?
We know of Barrington-Coupe’s propensity to “monkey around” with in-jokes like Havagesse, and the use of dubious recordings. Could it be that the truth about Joyce Hatto’s records were staring everyone in the face the whole time?
Concert Artist. Con Artist.
Its sister label (which also issued at least one Hatto recording) was called Fidelio. Fidelio is the name of a Beethoven opera in which the eponymous character is in disguise.
Was Concert Artist / Fidelio a continuation of the 1950s business practices? It seems to me that Barrington-Coupe was having a laugh all along, cocking a snook at the establishment for over 50 years.
The Concert Artist ethos
After the fraud was revealed, William Barrington-Coupe closed down his record label and sought to have a quiet life. But it is still possible to view the label’s old website on the Wayback Machine.
It is interesting to look at these webpages in retrospect. The first sentence thunders:
The Company was formed in 1952 with the basic objective of providing a sounding board for young British talent sadly neglected by the small group of major record companies who held sway some fifty years ago.
The small size of the young label, many distributing problems, and the open hostility that confronted the company, did not prevent it from adopting a very positive attitude in promoting unusual repertoire.
It seems likely to me that Barrington-Coupe shared with Joyce Hatto a contempt for the music establishment. It’s probable that this motivated Barrington-Coupe’s business practices. Then, as Hatto’s health deteriorated, enthusiasm got the better of them until the fraud was uncovered.
Still, it is impressive to maintain such a fraud for 55 years, while even telling everyone that you are a Con(cert) Artist.
If you are as interested in the Joyce Hatto story as I am, I would recommend the following articles:
- Mark Singer: Fantasia for piano – a very long but essential read. Highly recommended.
- Intelligent Life: Joyce Hatto: the great piano swindle.
- Gramophone: Masterpieces or fakes? The Joyce Hatto scandal – the article that originally flagged up the fraud.
- Gramophone: ‘I did it for my wife’ – Joyce Hatto exclusive, William Barrington-Coupe confesses.
- Andrys Basten: The Joyce Hatto hoax log – a comprehensive miscellany of information.
- Fahran Malik: Joyce Hatto identifications and scandal – identifications of the original recordings.
- Steven Benson: Joyce and Barry’s past (and pseudonymous, uncanny, bargain 60s classical vinyl) – a bit more on the history of William Barrington-Coupe’s budget record labels.
- The Great Piano Scam – Channel 4 documentary.