I first became interested in Baroque period music in my college years. In the college chorale (I was in the alto section) we often performed works by the two giants of Baroque–Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel–but one of my favorite pieces was a choral setting of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D, most famous as the main theme from the 1980 film Ordinary People.
It was while searching for a purely instrumental version of the Canon in D that I first found another beautiful Baroque piece: Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni’s “Adagio in G minor for Strings, Organ and Solo Violin.”
Albinoni was a relatively obscure Venetian Baroque composer, most famous in his lifetime (1671-1751) for his operas. And then, in the 1950s, there emerged this “Adagio” as a hit among lovers of Baroque. It’s been used by ballet companies, by figure skaters, in movie scores (most notably Gallipoli, a 1981 film about a disastrous First World War campaign), and, with lyrics added, by a number of vocalists; one excellent example is by Sarah Brightman.
This piece is, in fact, actually a modern composition, though. Here’s the story.
Albinoni’s manuscripts, including a number of musical scores that had never been published, had been housed in the Saxon State Library in Dresden, Germany, for many years. This library was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Although many of its treasures were sent out of Dresden before the bombing, Albinoni’s manuscripts were not. They were lost in the firestorm.
Before that time, however, some of these works had been catalogued by an Italian musicologist called Remo Giazotto; he had also authored a biography of Albinoni. In 1958, Giazotto introduced this piece as a work by Albinoni, which he had “arranged” from fragments of an unpublished trio sonata found in Albinoni’s papers.
Other musicologists who had worked with the Albinoni manuscripts before their loss were not so sure of this new find. Whereupon Giazotto’s story changed a little; he now claimed that he based the entire composition on nothing more than fragments of a bass line in an Albinoni manuscript, which he apparently attempted to pass off as having been sent to him for safekeeping when the library at Dresden dispersed many of its treasures. . .save that the Albinoni works had not been among those thus saved.
It’s worth noting that the piece’s copyright bears only the name of Remo Giazotto. And it’s moot now if he truly based it on anything by Albinoni; those archives were among some 200,000 items destroyed at the library in Dresden that fiery February.
Not that it matters. The music is magnificent, even if it was composed two centuries too late to be the work of Albinoni.
And frankly, I think he, at least, wouldn’t be overly concerned with its initial false attribution. He would probably be rather proud.