In his recent review of Manchester by the Sea, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane posits the following about the film’s musical centrepiece: "Should Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor not be banned onscreen?" he asks. "Any piece of music that has been used for Rollerball, Gallipoli, and Flashdance has, by definition, been squeezed dry."
That the simple, baroque movement purportedly written in the 18th century by an otherwise little-known Venetian composer lives on as one of the most popular, adaptable and recognizable pieces of classical music — a go-to for emotionally wrought film scores, covered by everyone from the Doors to Yngwie Malmsteen and Lara Fabian — is impressive enough. But the story of Albinoni's Adagio is much more complicated than that. It is, in fact, arguably the biggest fraud in music history.
The eldest son of a wealthy paper merchant, Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni was born in Venice in 1671. Showing an early proficiency as a singer and violist, the young Tomaso eventually turned his talents to composition, producing both his first opera and instrumental music collection in 1694. Upon his father’s passing in 1709, Albinoni — who referred to himself as a "Dilettante Veneto" — was able to become a full-time musician and composer, conceiving both opera and instrumental compositions until his death in 1751. As his operas were never published, Albinoni was mostly revered for his 99 sonatas, 59 concertos and 9 sinfonias, which were, at the time, compared favourably to contemporaries Corelli and Vivaldi.
Following his passing, much of Albinoni's unpublished music made its way to Saxon State Library in Dresden, where it was preserved before being all but completely destroyed in the Allied bombing raids of winter 1945.
That same year, the Milanese musicologist Remo Giazotto set out to write a biography of Albinoni and catalogue his remaining works, mining what was left in the Dresden archives. Giazotto published his book, Musico di Violino Dilettante Veneto, soon after and, for all intents and purposes, that would likely have been the last most outside classical circles heard of both subject and biographer.
However, four years later Giazotto re-emerged, claiming he had recovered a peice of unpublished Albinoni music from the Saxon State Library: a fragment of a manuscript, likely from the slow movement of a trio sonata or sonata da chiesa in G minor, possibly as part of his Op. 4 set (1708), which consisted of only the basso continuo and six bars of melody.
Giazotto asserted he had completed Albinoni’s single movement in tribute, copywriting and publishing it in 1958 under his own name with the mellifluous title Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ on Two Thematic Ideas and on a Figured Bass by Tomaso Albinoni.
Distinct for its descending baseline and earworm-inducing melody, Albinoni’s Adagio, as it came to be known, was quick to gain favour with baroque-inclined pop musicians and film music supervisors, who were attracted to the simple topline and minor key gravitas. First appearing as the main theme for Alain Resnais's 1961 film L'année dernière à Marienbad, Adagio became a mainstay in popular culture. Popping up, as Lane points out, in a variety of popular and varied films, commercials and television programs.
Notably, unlike other ubiquitous classical pieces, Adagio in G Minor still maintains its copyright, despite Giazotto’s original claim of shared authorship. Later on in life, perhaps mindful of the financial implications, Giazotto retracted his story, taking sole credit for the piece. (He died in 1998, meaning Adagio in G Minor will not enter the public domain until 2048, or 2068 in Europe).To this day, Albinoni’s fragment has not been produced and no official record of its presence has been found in the collection of the Saxon State Library.
With this in mind, perhaps it’s best to augment Anthony Lane’s plea to the piece’s title. Should Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor not be reconceived as simply Adagio in G Minor? Any piece of music that has been used for Rollerball, Gallipoli, and Manchester by the Sea should, by definition, be properly attributed.