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Who was Dario Castello?

The well-worn cover of one of my Bourbaki volumes
from the author's personal collection

At this morning’s master class given by baroque violinist Robert Mealy at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Mealy referred to Dario Castello as a very impressive composer about whom nothing is known. Indeed, the composer’s Wikipedia page states explicitly that there is no biographical information, meaning that even the dates of his birth and death are unknown. Thus, the primary reason why his name has come down to posterity is through the publication of two books entitled Sonate Concertate. The first, published in 1621, associates him with a “Compagnia de Musichi d’instrumenti,” (which the Wikipedia author describes as a “band”) based in Venice; and the second, published in 1629, suggests the he was affiliated with the Basilica of St. Mark’s. The Wikipedia author also suggests that he may have died during the great plague of 1630, since his name is not associated with any publications after than year.

My past as a student of mathematics, however, leads me to consider an alternative hypothesis. For the better part of the twentieth century, the authoritative textbooks in mathematics were, at least for those fortunate enough to understand French, “written” by Nicolas Bourbaki. (I still have three of those volumes in my personal library.) There was even a story that, during the liberation of Paris during the Second World War, an American platoon that included several mathematicians, sought out the headquarters of the Hermann publishing company, determined to “liberate” Bourbaki.

Unfortunately, Bourbaki had not been hidden away in one of that company’s offices or storage facilities. This was for a very good reason: He did not exist. “Bourbaki” was a pen name under which Hermann had invited the best mathematicians in France to participate in the authoring of the ultimate authoritative series of mathematics textbooks. I even recall Addison-Wesley initiating a project to translate Bourbaki into English, but I never saw more than an initial volume of the results.

This story should not be surprising to students of music history. Kate van Orden’s recent book, Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print, began with the following quotation:

I recall a certain great man saying that now Josquin is dead he is writing more compositions than when he was still alive.

One of the major points in van Orden’s book is that, at the beginning of that “first century of print,” the “authors” of books were taken to be the men who produced the physical objects, rather than those responsible for the content on the pages. Thus, one of the major changes during that century of transition was the very idea of a composer whose work was documented through publication.

That transition had been completed by the time those two Castello volumes were published. However, another aspect of the transition was the rise of the book as a marketable artifact. If a publisher achieved success through the work of a particular composer, he was not about to let a little thing like death interfere with his producing new volumes of that composer’s music! What Georg Forster said in 1540 about Josquin applied equally well to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi some two hundred years later. One can thus easily imagine that an enterprising Venetian publisher, unable to contract agreements with the best known composers of his day, would have invoked the “Bourbaki strategy,” forming a committee of skilled composers in need of a revenue stream to publish collectively under the name “Dario Castello.”

This, of course, is little more than an imaginative theory. However, as Freeman Dyson has written in his contribution to the latest issue of The New York Review, coming up with an inventive theory is an important facet of the practice of science, even if that theory is subsequently falsified. I see no reason why the same philosophy cannot be applied to efforts to expand our knowledge of music history!