In 1540, Henry the VIII ordered Thomas Cromwell to lure six musicians from Italy for the sole purpose of improving the court’s music. They made it to Canterbury, where the jailer Joseph Babcotte, unaware of the king’s plan, confiscated their instruments: six viols, two violins, two violas, and a violoncello. Two of the men died in captivity, and their violins went missing. The four survivors eventually left England with their instruments. Only one of them returned, finally reaching the king’s court.
In 1566, the jailer’s son, George Babcotte, at age twenty-four, made his first reported appearance playing the violin, accompanying a translated Ludovico Ariosto play at a carnival in London’s exclusive Gray’s Inn. Had he been inspired by his father’s captives? “His playing was truly the saddest sound I have ever heard,” John Lyly observed in a letter to Edward de Vere, the man some doubters credit as being the “real” author of Shakespeare’s works. “It moved the whole of the crowd to tears repeatedly.” With the ascension of Queen Elizabeth I to the crown in 1558, all prayers and Catholic rituals during funeral services were discouraged, making way for a Protestant overhaul, which enforced a strict code of conduct for each class of procession. In 1584, a “funerary violinist” was officially added to the heralds of the College of Arms to play at the burial of anyone with the status of baron or above. Babcotte thus became the first public face of this mysterious and maligned subgenre of music.
I’m a sucker for weird anthologies that showcase niche art movements, and over the years I’ve amassed a small library, both on audio and on paper. Some vinyl finds include Remolino de Oro: Coastal Cumbias from Colombia’s Discos Fuentes 1961–1973 and La Contra Ola: Synth Wave and Post Punk from Spain, 1980–86. On the books side, I’ve spent hours immersed in Imaginary Numbers: An Anthology of Marvelous Mathematical Stories, Diversions, Poems, and Musings, which includes Christian Bök’s unusual “Enantiomorphosis (A Natural History of Mirrors),” with partly mirrored text; and 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, which contains Werner Herzog’s 1999 “Minnesota Declaration,” arguing for the use of “ecstatic truth” in documentary cinema—a state that can “be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”
During the early COVID days of 2020, after losing my bookselling job and the routine I’d depended on, I escaped into such musical and textual compendiums as a distraction from reality. My discovery of Babcotte père et fils is thanks to a 2013 release from the enigmatic Mississippi Records label, titled The Art of Funerary Violin: Contemporary Recordings by Members of the Guild of Funerary Violinists Under the Direction of Rohan Kriwaczek. The album stayed on my turntable for weeks at a stretch. Its minimalist cover depicts a robed skeleton holding two femurs like a bow and violin, while the gothic solo pieces within, with occasional minimalist bass drum, seemed tailor-made for the inescapable pandemic deaths of the time.
The liner notes credit various eighteenth and nineteenth-century composers, including Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss of Lower Saxony, the French master Pierre Dubuisson, and Charles Sudbury, England’s “dark genius.” I became fascinated with this genre I’d never heard of, and soon discovered there was a companion volume to the record, conveniently written by the musical director himself: Rohan Kriwaczek. The book was out of print, but I found it easily online. As I became preoccupied with the basic survival that year required, the handsome hardcover sat on my shelves practically untouched.
While downsizing my record collection recently, I came upon The Art of Funerary Violin once again. Its intensity had gone dormant for a few years as I figured out my finances; I eventually got my bookselling job back, and life returned to something like normal. To my relief, the ethereal music still soothed my spirit, bringing to mind imagery such as Virgil guiding lost souls through an unforgiving afterlife. I pulled the book—An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin—down from my crowded shelves, and approached it with renewed curiosity. I learned that funerary violin began as an improvised tradition, and the earliest written composition was a short suite in 1670. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed most of the guild’s early records. The biggest loss came during the Great Funerary Purges of 1833, when the Catholic Church confiscated or destroyed any surviving records and compositions held by the guild. (A faction in the Vatican that opposed exploitation through grief had bested its weaker rival.)
George Babcotte, the guild’s founder and for a time its lone member, took his own life in 1607, while fleeing from an arrest warrant after being labeled a heretic. He was buried with a stake through his heart at an unremarkable Sussex crossroads. According to the book, most violinists associated with the guild died tragically, and little is known of them. (The Church was surprisingly thorough in its suppression.) The only member with anything like a modern photograph happens to be the author, Rohan Kriwaczek—the person also credited with assembling the Mississippi Records release.
Kriwaczek gives a brief history of funerary music, which he claims goes back thousands of years, and supplies capsule biographies of prominent members of the Guild of Funerary Violinists. Regarding his first encounter with the guild, he writes, “A more dreary collection of fellows could not be imagined, by me at least, although Dickens did at times come close.” Engravings, photographs, and illustrations add dimension to the depictions of these unusual artists and events. One grows accustomed to the author’s vague phrasing sprinkled among grandiose historical claims: “How he came to take on this role is unknown, but many scholars have suggested,” he tells us, before speculating on Babcotte’s undocumented rise to fame. After reading that Babcotte was the original inspiration behind the character of Hortensio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, I was compelled to learn more about this violinist and the guild.
In October 2006, just weeks prior to the book’s joint publication by Overlook Press in the States and Duckworth Books in the UK, The New York Times published an article revealing Kriwaczek’s project as a hoax. Even the “funerary duels” that took France by storm in the early nineteenth century, where each violinist improvised around a melody (the one who drew the most tears was named the winner), were dismissed by historians and music experts as false. Peter Mayer, the publisher of Overlook, had acquired the manuscript as a nonfiction title for his list at the Frankfurt Book Fair the previous year, after being swept away by its claims. “It reads so extraordinarily serious and passionate,” he told the Times.
Unlike literary hoaxes such as Clifford Irving’s fake autobiography of Howard Hughes, the constructed literary persona JT LeRoy, or H. G. Carrillo’s bogus Cuban identity, Rohan’s project went beyond inventing a sole persona. More audaciously, he added an entire footnote to the past five hundred years of musical history. “I just thought, whether it is true or not true, it is the work of some sort of crazy genius,” Mayer told the Times. “If it is a hoax, it is a brilliant, brilliant hoax.” (Mayer died in 2018.)
It’s hard for me to reconcile this sublime music, which came to me during a difficult period in my life, with this bizarre invented history, just as I’m sure it was hard for Mayer to accept that the manuscript he’d published was a sham. A human being, after all, wrote the words that eventually became a book, researched the “real” history running alongside its fiction, and packaged this prank with elaborate graphics. The album was released six years after the book’s publication; one wonders if Peter Mayer ever listened to the compositions. (Sheet music for the LP forms the appendix to the Overlook edition.)
Numerous emails to Overlook Press and Mississippi Records went unanswered, but after I tried several different addresses for Rohan Kriwaczek, he finally wrote back. His Overlook biography states that he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 1974; Rohan revealed to me that he was actually born in 1968, in London. He began composing on woodwinds at the age of eight, and took up Bulgarian bagpipes soon after, but in later years found the instrument unwieldly for his purposes as a travelling musician. It was after a snowstorm in Scotland in 1994, Rohan says, that he picked up the violin, which he taught himself by busking six hours a day. After five years, he says, he got “pretty good.” The project began, “as me writing a bunch of solo violin music—something nobody was interested in. I decided that rather than writing individual pieces, what I wanted to create was a genre, and a genre needs a history, and history needs good stories, heroes and villains, et cetera.”
Rohan would get up at 6 a.m., research historical periods, search eBay for useful memorabilia, and “just wrote” the book. In his elaborate literary prank, he feels like a character from a Jorge Luis Borges story, yet he goes one step further by physically manifesting a piece of the impossible work described within the pages: the music on the record. “You have to understand,” Rohan wrote to me, “I am an artist and live in the worlds I create, so at the time I totally believed in funerary violin, and I was just writing it into existence.”
Fernando Pessoa, the early twentieth-century Portuguese writer, employed about 136 heteronyms with detailed biographies throughout his writing life. About the neopagan poet Alberto Caeiro, one of his most prolific alter egos, he once wrote, “I thought I would play a trick… and invent a bucolic poet of a rather complicated kind,” hinting that his genesis was a joke. In this, Rohan has more in common with Pessoa than with Borges or any other forebear. On the Mississippi release, each violinist, credited with titles like “The Sombre Coquetry of Death,” has his own stylistic flair. The distinct tempo and mood of the processional by Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss distinguish it from one of Charles Sudbury’s maddening dirges, just as a poem by “Alberto Caeiro” has a voice that yearns differently from those of “Ricardo Reis” or “Álvaro de Campos”—Pessoa’s two other dominant heteronyms.
In trying to imagine Rohan’s book as a fiction submission looking for a publisher, the necessity of presenting the work as historically factual becomes obvious. As fiction, it’s nearly unclassifiable—unpublishable, even. Its comparative titles are daring but inaccessible works such as The Temple of Iconoclasts, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s 1972 compendium of mad scientists, or the invented Byzantium-like society that rivals Rome in Jean d’Ormesson’s The Glory of the Empire—all extremely difficult to find English translations of, circa 2006.
Since the Mississippi compilation, Rohan Kriwaczek says, he has recorded ten more albums in various styles that he has no plans to release, merely hinting at being the sole creator of and performer behind funerary music. He claims that violinists get in touch with him, looking for more funerary violin sheet music to perform than the Overlook book has to offer. There are now bands, he informs me, dedicated to the genre of funerary violin, playing his arrangements and even writing new material. I couldn’t find any such bands, however. I wasn’t able to verify any of these claims. And it was never clear whether the Babcotte story was true or not—Rohan didn’t reveal what was fact or fiction in the book. But I want to believe all of it, if only as the deeper strata of “ecstatic truth” Herzog vehemently argued for.
Only 1,500 copies of An Incomplete History were printed. Upon its scandalous release, a spokesperson at Duckworth told the Daily Mail that it would become a collector’s item. On Spotify, there’s solo violin music under Rohan’s name, as well as plenty of tracks from the Guild of Funerary Violinists—at times, certain pieces overlap. Rohan Kriwaczek’s elaborate twenty-first-century prank is a unique convergence of performance art, music, and literature to rival that of one of Borges’s most famous characters, Pierre Menard, who attempted his own near-verbatim version of Don Quixote. But when was the last time you saw Menard’s Don Quixote for sale anywhere?