Love can mean so many things. A person, a passion, a life’s work. Pianist Joyce Hatto was blessed with all three – a talent for playing music, the drive to perfect her skill, and a loving husband who adored her playing and championed her career.
Joyce and her husband William Barrington-Coupe became implicated in one of the biggest scandals to hit the music world, involving love, lies and digital manipulation. But there’s a strong case to be made that this sorry tale is also a love story.
In retrospect, the idea that a pianist could spend her twilight years making recordings whose critical reception surpassed that of any of the live performances of her youth never quite added up. Joyce Hatto had a solid, consistent career in the 1950s and 60s, but never hit the dizzy heights of a piano star like Lang Lang (listen to a 1959 recording here). Yet in her 70s, she apparently recorded multiple works for both solo piano and piano and orchestra which received some serious critical acclaim. William, who had established his own career as a producer, released his wife’s recordings on his Concert Artist label. After a career during which she had at times felt either ignored or patronised by the music establishment, Joyce seemed at last to be receiving the credit she deserved.
But it was too good to be true. The recordings – over 100 of them – were discovered in 2007 to be fakes. Perhaps the truth is that William’s abilities as a producer outweighed those of his wife as a player – he cleverly manipulated her playing on hundreds of recordings, ‘patching up’ weak passages and her moans of pain (she was suffering from cancer) with extracts from existing recordings by, in some cases, world-famous players, ultimately rendering average playing extraordinary. This in itself requires a high level of musicality and brilliant technical skills, but William couldn’t escape the fact that he had been caught in a huge lie.
He was disgraced and his wife discredited; their names have become a byword for musical fraud. And yet, despite the scandal and shock of William’s actions, he said it was all done out of love. He always maintained that Joyce never knew what he’d done – she died in 2006, before the discovery was made – and that he was motivated by wanting to give her the gift she craved above all; recognition of her talent, and acceptance by an industry that she felt had rejected her.
Only somebody who knew her intimately, perhaps better than she knew herself, could have both recognised that need and, disregarding the consequences, fulfilled it for her. Joyce died feeling that her playing had been heard and appreciated.
It’s a favourable reading of William’s actions, for sure – but he has had ample censure. Let’s reserve that for the men like Walter Keane, who did rather the opposite – keeping his wife captive, drawing pictures that sold in their millions, while he took the credit himself. The Keanes’ story inspired Tim Burton’s 2014 film Big Eyes. Unfortunately he was far from the only artist to overshadow his talented wife.