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.

15th c. gold ring with Christ engraving found in Sweden

A gold ring engraved with the face of Christ dating to the early 15th century has been discovered in a wide-scale excavation in Kalmar, Sweden. The ring was found in a waste disposal context but it is in almost untouched condition, suggesting it was accidentally lost rather than deliberately discarded at the end of its usage. The ring is small, so it was probably worn by a woman. Rings of similar type have been discovered in northern Finland and in southern and eastern Sweden.

Another devotional object discovered in a waste area is a glass alsengem, a pilgrim’s amulet named after the Danish island of Als where the first examples was found. They were believed to protect wearers against misfortune on their travels. It dates to the 13th or 14th century and is carved with three rough stick figures. It is fragmentary — only the bottom of it survives — so it was likely thrown away rather than lost.

A major infrastructure project to replace water and sewage pipes and expand the stormwater pipe system was accompanied by archaeological investigations in compliance with cultural heritage laws. Two years of excavations over 10 blocks in the historical Old City, have unearthed the remains of wooden buildings, stone houses with vaulted cellars, streets, latrines, wells and more than 30,000 artifacts dating from between 1250 and 1650.

Never before have archaeologists had an opportunity to explore such a large contiguous area of medieval Kalmar (or of any medieval city, for that matter), and the results have exceeded all expectations, opening a window into the daily lives of the city’s residents over the course of centuries.

Rijksmuseum acquires only signed painting by Gesina ter Borch

The Rijksmuseum has acquired the only signed oil painting by Gesina ter Borch, a draftsman and watercolorist of the Dutch Golden Age and a member of one of the most prominent artistic families in the 17th century Netherlands. A posthumous portrait of her youngest brother as a child, the painting is a rare testimonial to her skills with oils on canvas as well as to her family bonds.

Art was very much the business of two generations of the Ter Borch family. Gesina’s father Gerard ter Borch the Elder was a painter who had practiced successfully in Rome for many years. He taught his eldest son Gerard who would go on to even greater success as portraitist for the aristocracy of Europe and creator of genre paintings that inspired Golden Age luminaries like Johannes Vermeer. The father also taught his younger son Harmen ter Borch, his daughter Gesina and his youngest son Moses.

Moses’ promising artistic career was cut short when he joined the Dutch Navy in 1664 when he was just 19. He fought against the British in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) and died from injuries sustained in the failed Dutch attack on Harwich in June 1667.

Gesina’s medium was primarily drawing, but she frequently posed as a model for her brothers’ paintings, and her brothers were frequent subjects in her own work. She was also the family’s most dedicated archivist, keeping all of the artworks still in their hands together in a single collection. The Netherlands bought this family patrimony in 1886 and it is now in the permanent collection of the Rijksmuseum, including three albums containing Gesina’s drawings, many of them featuring upper class subjects in scenes of daily life, plus poems, collages, drawings and self-portraits by her brothers.

Moses ter Borch was the apple of his family’s eye, and his sister Gesina lovingly depicted him wearing a dress with a white apron, and a hat with feathers that contrast sharply with the dark background. He is carrying a drum and holding drumsticks. Next to him stands a toy horse on wheels, against which leans an orange pennant. A whip, several musical instruments and a sword are shown lying on the floor. The toys are references to his later life as a soldier. The artist inscribed the year 1647 on the portrait, but she almost certainly painted it 20 years later, following Moses’ death.

The only other oil painting strongly attributed to her was a collaboration with her famous brother Gerard, but the only signature is Gerard’s. It too was a posthumous portrait of their beloved little brother Moses and it too is housed in the Rijksmuseum. Moses is older in that portrait, dressed in his military uniform at the age when he enlisted.

Pristine 200-year-old sweater found in impounded parcel

A sweater knitted 217 years ago in the Faroe Islands and still in pristine condition has been discovered in a package that was seized and impounded by the British Navy in 1807. It was opened as part of the Prize Papers Project which is working to catalogue and digitize the huge quantity of documents, including 160,000 undelivered letters, in the UK’s National Archives captured by the Royal Navy in wars from 1652 to 1815.

The sweater was made of fine wool in a pattern of tiny black and white florals against a vivid red background. The pattern, fitted waist, short length, half-sleeves and open neckline is very similar to the jumper of the Faroese national dress. It was sent by one Niels C. Winther of Tórshavn to Mr P Ladsen in Copenhagen with an accompanying note written in Danish stating “my wife sends her regards, thank you for the pudding rice. She sends your fiancé this sweater and hopes that it is not displeasing to her.” He described it as a “sweater for sleeping.”

Margretha Nónklett [head of ethnology at the Faroe Islands national museum] said: ‘This is a tremendously exciting find. There are very few pieces like this and we have none with this particular design. It would have been handmade at home with hand-dyed wool.’

Dr Amanda Bevan, of the National Archives, said: ’This is a rare example of a parcel surviving in the Prize Papers, which often contain letters consigned to ships for delivery by sea.’

The Winthers’ parcel sailed from Tórshavn aboard the cargo ship Anne Marie, one of two ships owned by the King of Denmark that had the monopoly of trade with the Faroes, on August 20th, 1807. The news had not yet reached the islands that the British Navy had begun the Second Battle of Copenhagen four days earlier. The British engaged in the naval battle and bombardment of Copenhagen in the attempt to seize or destroy the Danish fleet before the Danish king succumbed to French pressure to join forces with Napoleon. If neutral Denmark was swayed to the French side, the British feared its navy would their vital military and commercial access to the Baltic Sea.

The Anne Marie was boarded by the crew of the HMS Defense off the coast of Norway on September 2nd. Captain Jurgen S Toxsvaerd and the rest of the Anne Marie‘s crew were imprisoned and the mail and cargo it was carrying seized. The battle raged until September 7th when the Danish fleet surrendered to the Royal Navy. Toxsvaerd was later released in Copenhagen. He reported the Anne Marie’s seized cargo as “49,000 pairs of woollen stockings, eight tons of dried fish, 100 cases of candles, 250 barrels of tallow, 19 barrels of train oil and 10 barrels of feather.”

A handful of those woollen stocking in Toxsvaerd’s report were found in another shipment opened at the National Archives. The parcel contained a bundle of finely knitted women’s knee-length stockings and some fabric samples. Fine woollen stockings were a top export from the Faroe Islands during this period.

Paper rix-dollars were also found among the letters, with a wad of them wrapped around 18 silver coins, which include Danish skillings dating back to the reign of Frederick III of Denmark, 1648-1670.

There are also two samples of barley being returned to sender with a note complaining about the quality of an earlier shipment: ’Out of 416 barrels of grain sent, 399 have taken some damage’. 25 barrels were so bad they couldn’t sell them, they wrote.

All of the letters and photographs of package contents from the Anne Marie will be digitized and made available in the Prize Papers database. The project is immense in scope with an estimated 3.5 million document images to be digitized and made freely available online. It will take two decades to complete.

San Francisco Diego Rivera mural saved

Diego Rivera’s masterpiece of self-reference, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, a mural on the wall of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) campus that was at risk of being sold off when the institute defaulted on a bank loan, has been saved by a nonprofit organization.

In debt to the tune of $20 million, the San Francisco Art Institute declared bankruptcy in April of last year. That summer, the bank announced it would sell the institute’s collateral, namely all of its facilities down to the bricks, with Diego Rivera’s two-story mural, appraised at $50 million, as the juiciest plum. It would have been sold on its own to the highest bidder who could then dismantle it and move it out of the old facility and even outside the city.

The plan caused an outcry from the arts community and historical preservationists. The city’s Board of Supervisors quickly stepped in to grant the mural landmark status, immediately blocking any alterations to the fresco not approved by San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission. The everything-must-go firesale was officially off.

The new nonprofit, funded by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, formed an LLC to buy the two-acre campus on Russian Hill, negotiating a price of $30 million, including the fresco, which is a bargain considering the property was valued at $40 million not counting the Rivera mural. The nonprofit plans to use the campus as an arts institution, possibly with artists-in-residence, administered by an advisory committee that includes Jobs and local leaders of the arts.

Those plans are a long ways off, however, because the campus is in dire need of renovations. The full extent of the repairs are not yet known. The facilities are certainly in poor shape, as the SFAI was too broke at the end of its life to maintain them properly and it was abandoned entirely after foreclosure. The red clay tile roof is leaking and the departing staff left behind office equipment that will need to be cleared, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“We’re energized by the tremendous community support we’ve seen for restoring the site, keeping the mural in place, and reopening as a nonprofit arts institution that will bring in a dynamic new generation of artists,” [Brenda Way, founder and artistic director of San Francisco’s Oberlin Dance Collective and advisory committee member,] said in a statement to the Chronicle. “We’re building on a brilliant cultural history and looking toward a boundless artistic future, one that will affect and be affected by the vibrant culture of San Francisco. Now the real work begins.”

That work includes addressing heavily deferred maintenance at the property, the extent of which has yet to be fully investigated. The group’s spokesperson estimated that restoring the campus will require about two to four years of construction activities, and that a full assessment must be still conducted “before we can be more specific.”