Bodleian acquires rare Bach manuscript

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685–1750 Cantata 'Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein', BWV 128 [1725]. Photo courtesy the Bodleian Libraries.The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries have acquired a rare autograph manuscript by German Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. One of only four manuscripts in the UK written in Bach’s hand, the document was accepted by the government in lieu of £3.65 million in inheritance taxes.

Also known as the Kohn manuscript after collector Sir Ralph Kohn who fled Nazi Germany for England in 1940, the 16-page manuscript is Bach’s composition of his cantata for the feast of the Ascension Day, May 10, 1725: “Auf Christi Himmelfahrt Allein.” This is the only surviving working manuscript of this cantata and it is the complete score. The music would not be printed until 1878.

Kohn had previously loaned the manuscript for exhibition at Buckingham Palace in the early 2000s. He died in 2016 and his widow Zahava inherited his collection. She has now passed away as well and her heirs paid the tax bill with the manuscript.

The short, festive cantata, which lasts less than 20 minutes in performance, is scored for two horns, three different types of oboe, trumpet, strings and continuo, with four-part chorus, and alto, tenor and bass soloists. Its five movements comprise a celebratory opening chorus, a short recitative and aria for bass voice, a duet for alto and tenor, ending with a simple chorale. The music for this cantata was all new, which is relatively unusual for Bach who frequently recycled and adapted movements from his other compositions. The music for many of his cantatas has not survived at all.

The manuscript comprises four large-format bifolia (16 pages), handwritten by the composer himself in brown and black ink. The title is written above the first page of music: ‘Festo Ascensionis Xsti, Auff Christi Himmelfahrt allein’, preceded by Bach’s personal epigraph ‘J.J.’, which stands for ‘Jesu Juva’ (‘Jesus, Help’). This is Bach’s composing score, a working document in which the composer made many corrections and revisions, especially in the opening chorus. The manuscript also contains some annotations by Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and a few faint pencil marks made by the printers as they prepared the work for its first publication in 1878.

As Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, Bach was expected to compose a new cantata for practically every Sunday of the church year, as well as special festivals like Ascension Day. Much of the writing betrays signs of great haste: for example, bar lines straggle down pages and there is little attempt to maintain the vertical alignment of the different parts. It is also interesting to see how Bach achieves his alterations by a variety of means: sometimes by scratching out the text with a pin, or simply by crossing through with his pen. The smudges made accidentally by his hand or sleeve before the ink was dry add a personal touch to the manuscript. Occasionally, where Bach has deleted notes or passages and heavily gone over various sections with his pen, the acidic ink has eroded the paper. This is unfortunately a common problem with the surviving Bach autographs, but this example is better than most, presenting fairly limited signs of erosion.

Characteristically, Bach does his best to condense the maximum amount of music into the minimum space, keen to avoid wasting valuable paper wherever possible. Every corner of the page is filled, the music flowing right to the edge. The dramatic immediacy on the page and the evident haste in which the composer wrote down his music, impart a sense of urgency and creative energy to Bach’s scores, which are often extremely beautiful in their own right. This manuscript is no exception.

The Kohn manuscript went on display March 15th in the Weston Library’s Treasury as part of the Write, Cut, Rewrite exhibition which runs through January 5, 2025. The full manuscript has been digitized and uploaded to the library’s online collection, Digital Bodleian. A performance of the work to celebrate the 300th anniversary of its first performance in 1725 is being planned.

2 thoughts on “Bodleian acquires rare Bach manuscript

  1. The autograph of his “Unfinished Fugue” abruptly breaks off in the middle of its third section, with a note in the handwriting, stating:

    “While working on this fugue, which introduces the name BACH in the countersubject, the composer died. / (‘…ueber dieser Fuge, wo der Nahme B-A-C-H im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist Der Verfaßer gestorben.’)” 🙁️

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