Valuable Bach manuscript goes under the hammer

Deutsche Welle
4 Min Read

Christie’s auction house in London auctioned the rare original score at a final price of $3.3 million. That would be comparable to the price of a precious work of art – which some say this is.
The manuscript’s value was originally estimated at between 1.5 and 2.5 million pounds (between 2 and 3.3 million dollars). At the auction on Wednesday (13.07.2016) in London, the final bid came in at the high end of expectations.

Likely written between 1740 and 1745, the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat Major (BWV 998) is a favorite among both harpsichords and lutenists. Like many works by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), it can be played on different instruments, which is expressly indicated on this score in the composer’s handwriting: “Prelude pour la Luth ò Cembal” (for lute or keyboard).

Before the auction, the privately-owned score, not having changed hands or been seen in public since 1969, was exhibited in Hamburg, Munich, Dusseldorf and Stuttgart, then making its way to showings in New York and Japan.

Like a painting

Viewing it was described by Chantal Nastasi, culture reporter with German public broadcaster NDR, as a “special moment.” Describing the paper as “yellowed, almost browned,” Nastasi observed that Bach had evidently worked carefully on the composition, correcting only few notes.

Hans-Christoph Rademann, director of the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, confirmed that the clarity of the handwriting indicates that Bach probably penned the composition in a single setting. “He must have finished it in his head and then written it down by memory – an immense achievement,” said Rademann, who described having inspected the manuscript as “an experience comparable to seeing a painting in the original.”

Thomas Venning, manuscript expert for Christie’s, described Bach’s handwriting on the score as “very flowing and graceful.” Noting that paper was expensive in Bach’s time, he explained that the paper used in this particular manuscript was of unusually high quality, and that only one other piece is known for which Bach used paper from the same factory. This could indicate that Bach highly valued the piece.

Precious few comparable manuscripts

Complete autographs, or original manuscripts, by Bach are rare. The great majority of his works exist only in published or handwritten copies – or if originals, then either fragmentary or only in part-books for individual voices or instruments.

According to Christie’s, less than 10 complete autograph scores by Bach are currently privately owned, including two instrumental works and six cantatas.

Bach bequeathed a large part of his original manuscripts to his oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who later sold them off to pay debts. For this and other reasons, many of Bach’s works – perhaps one-fourth to one-third of his total output – remain lost.

Also auctioned off at Christie’s on Wednesday was the “Hortus Eystettensis,” a botanical encyclopedia dating from 1613. The work by Basilius Basler, an apothecary and copper engraver from Nuremberg, includes 366 hand-colored printings.

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