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The Most Remarkable Unknown Composer of All Times

Apr, 2004

How often does one hear the expression, "Life without the music of So and So would be unthinkable"? Well, if Mozart had never existed, my record collection would be that much less crowded; but if he had never existed, then how could he be missed? And where would "art" be without Rembrandt? Unthinkable? Of course not, if such a person had never existed.

We have only 7 of the reputed 100 or so plays of Sophocles. Think of a universe in which we had all of them. Does that make ours unthinkable because we have only 7 — and are lucky to have those?

But now and then an artist — in this case, a musician — comes along with such a tremendous talent that others in his field feared that THEIR lives would be unthinkable WITH this man’s music. So just as Salieri in the play is supposed to have suppressed as many chances as he could for Mozart to succeed, here we have a case in which the entire musical world drew ranks to make sure that even a single work of a certain composer would never be heard by anyone at all! Even his name would be anathema.

Of the life of this man, whose name was Parifollo, we know little to nothing. Even his first name and nationality are a mystery. To make it worse, one of the very few records that even prove he existed spell his last name Parifollo; and this might indicate that it means "through the page or leaf." But if Parifollo is correct, it might be a corruption of "like a page or leaf" (from "para" meaning "the same"). Of course, this does not mean he was Italian, since many composers at that time had their names Italicized.

We know that he flourished around 1750, because our first reference to him was early in that year when Salieri himself mentions in a letter a certain "upstart jackass who has no knowledge of harmonic progression." Well, it seems that our man had so good a sense of harmonic progression that he felt he could break the old rules and make new ones. What he was actually doing was working with what seems to have been a 13-tone scale. Now this works almost like the 12-tone scale of certain 20th century composers, except that it compensates for the fact that there is no black key between E and F on a pianoforte. It is possible that Mozart makes fun of Parifollo’s system in his "Dissonant" String Quartet. It is, however, a certainty that he did try to reduce it to absurdity in his "A Musical Joke," as did his father Leopold before him in his "Toy Symphony."

In those works, which were tonal, Parifollo’s symphonies, for example, shifted to a new key every five bars "to keep the suspense going." (Again, these are not necessarily direct quotations.) Some think that Puccini gave a nod to these works (which, of course, he never could have heard) in the closing bars of "Madama Butterfly" where he suddenly switches to a different key.

As for operas, no wonder that even Mozart himself felt threatened. Our man was determined (and think of how Wagner was yet a century away) to make each aria actually advance the plot. He seems to have laughed at the opera seria use of an aria to express a single emotion followed by a dramatic exit, no matter how silly the latter was dramatically. There was a rumor, overheard by Mozart we are told, that Parifollo had deconstructed "The Abduction from the Seraglio" and showed that not one single aria served any dramatic purpose at all.

Needless to say, 13-tone arias that had dramatic force were not difficult to compose but difficult for singers to negotiate and for audiences to take. A Prague newspaper of the time quotes him (indirectly, since no one ever seems to have remembered exactly what he said) as disdaining lovely and memorable melodies because "life is not like that" ("Das Leben ist verblunget").

So here we have the case of a man who wrote the most impressive music ever penned and yet the world (except for a small few who immediately suppressed it) has not heard a single note. You can look in vain for any mention of him in any musical encyclopedia and only the most ambiguous hints of his existence show up in the private letters of the composers of his day.

Finally, I must explain that the only reason I have learned as much about him as I have is that I by the sheerest chance happened to unscramble the letters of his name. Alas, Parifollo, how badly we need you today!

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