Performing Arts | Past Masters

Music manuscripts

Original scores by great composers – with their own pen-and-ink notations – give an insight into the creative process and are highly desirable, says Claire Wrathall.

March 17 2011
Claire Wrathall

Asked on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs to choose a favourite book, the pharmaceuticals magnate and philanthropist Sir Ralph Kohn opted for the works of Bach, specifically the edition that once belonged to Mahler. “It’s not actually the most important item in my collection” – which runs to autograph scores by Schubert, Mendelssohn and, in particular, Bach – “but it is one of the most fascinating. When he was conducting the New York Philharmonic, Mahler used to rearrange Bach suites, taking a gavotte here, a chorale there, a sarabande, mixing them all up, and you can see clearly in his annotations how he used to work. Studying it in depth was something I thought would keep me busy if I were a castaway,” he adds. “A shudder goes down my spine when I think of the masters who actually wrote them.”

Most truly great works of art will have been touched by genius in a literal sense, but few bear witness to the creative process quite like a piece of music that bears the marks of its composer. With, say, Beethoven, “the act of composition is both fascinating and visually stunning”, says Dr Simon Maguire, Sotheby’s senior specialist of books and manuscripts, whose department holds regular auctions of music manuscripts. (Mendelssohn, too, had “the most wonderful handwriting,” adds Kohn.)

While single leaves by Beethoven come up “fairly regularly”, says Maguire, “substantial manuscripts wholly in the composer’s hand” appear only rarely. Hence the sums they can fetch. In June 2010, for example, a torn one-bar fragment, just 5cm x 6.7cm, of a contrapuntal study notated in brown ink on three staves and crosshatched with deletions and additions by Beethoven’s pen, fetched £8,750 at Sotheby’s in London.

Compare that, however, to the £1.18m bid for the autograph score for the Scherzo from Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat major, Op 127, at the same auction house in 2003. “It was a tremendous work,” says Maguire, “fully showing Beethoven’s continuing creative work on the quartet, with lots of characteristic crossings-out and revisions.” Or more remarkably yet, the £2.13m paid the same year by a telephone bidder from New York for the working manuscript of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where the revisions included an instruction to up the tempo in the finale from presto to prestissimo, rebukes to the copyist (“du verfluchter Kerl” – “you damned fellow”) and, most revealingly, some music that was never published.

The bidder was Bruce Kovner, founder and chairman of the New York hedge fund Caxton Associates LLC, whose collection spans from the earliest surviving manuscript of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and a continuo part for Bach’s Cantata 176 to Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Stravinsky’s autograph sketchbook for Petrushka, by way of symphony parts by Brahms (no 2), Dvorák (no 8), Mahler (no 9) and Schumann (no 2). The latter is especially fascinating. “Schumann would make corrections on the page and then paste bits of paper over the changes with additional corrections,” says Maguire. “So the manuscript shows us not only the authoritative text, but how it came to be. It’s like digging back in history.”

Kovner has donated almost the entire archive to New York’s Juilliard School, of which he is chairman of the board of Trustees. “Better,” he explained at the time, “to make them available to the world than keep them under the mattress. I trust that [this] will make it possible for students and scholars to delve into the compositional processes of these great composers and share them with the rest of the world.”

Another New York financier to have had an interest in music scores was J Pierpont Morgan, who purchased an original manuscript of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no 10 in G minor, as well as handwritten letters from the 13-year-old Mozart. Indeed, the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, founded to house his books and manuscripts, is now one of the greatest repositories of sheet music, having subsequently acquired several other collections, one amassed by Robert Owen Lehman, great-grandson of one of the original Lehman Brothers.

In addition to the major auction houses, one can buy, as Kohn did, from independent dealers such as Otto Haas, which has London and Stuttgart offices, and some extraordinary works; from a fragment annotated by Alban Berg (just sold for £600) to a signed and inscribed first edition of Debussy’s Nocturnes, Nuages et Fêtes (recently sold for £3,500) and an autograph manuscript of the first bass part of Mendelssohn’s rarely heard Auf, ihr Herrn und Damen schön (£9,500).

The rediscovery of rarities of this kind can influence what is heard on concert platforms. Take the French conductor and baroque specialist Christophe Rousset, a collector of manuscripts who 10 years ago happened upon a first edition of Lully’s all but forgotten 1679 opera Bellérophon in an antiquarian bookshop in Paris.

Last summer Rousset, who had in the interim found various orchestral parts from the opera, conducted its modern premiere at the Beaune Festival, with subsequent performances in Paris, Versailles and Vienna. “It was an incredible experience to be able to work from them,” he says. “When I bought these scores I never thought they’d become the basis of a performance.”

Rousset, who searches antiques shops across France (“I rarely buy at auction,” he says), has amassed 17th- and 18th- century manuscripts by, among others, Rameau, Scarlatti and Galuppi. “They are such beautiful objects,” he says, adding that this sort of collecting is better approached serendipitously than with a wish list. “I would, however, love to find the missing Leçons de Ténèbres by Couperin,” he adds. “There are nine pieces in the cycle, six of which are lost. But the three are so beautiful, that finding just one of the others would be my dream.”

See also

Collecting, Vintage