Bach cantata manuscript goes on public display at Christie's in London
Rare chance to view Bach's musical hand before sale on June 13
A manuscript of one of JS Bach’s late cantatas goes on public view today at Christie’s in London ahead of its sale on June 13.
The manuscript, the first example of Bach’s musical hand to appear on the open market for 16 years, is the Taille (tenor oboe) part for Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174, and shows the script of two of Bach’s copyists - probably his pupil Samuel Gottleib Heder and another, known only as ‘Anonymous IV’ - in the early movements, with Bach’s own unmistakable handwriting appearing for the final chorale (the Passion chorale of Martin Schalling, used five years earlier in the St John Passion). It is a fascinating insight into Bach’s working practises, coming, as it did, in 1729 – mid-way through his period as kapellmeister at the Thomasschule, a job he combined with directing the music at the principal churches in Leipzig.
‘It’s very appealing that it takes you into the practicalities of Bach’s working life,’ says Thomas Venning, director and senior specialist in the Printed Books and Manuscripts department at Christie’s. ‘It’s not just about writing celestial music – it’s a question of having a short amount of time to put on a show. You can almost imagine him writing it with a sandwich in his hand, having rushed back from church.’
The cantata was written for Whit Monday, the day after Pentecost, and is particularly notable for its use of the first movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto as its opening movement. Bach often re-used or parodied his earlier orchestral work in the cantatas – and particularly in the music for Whit Monday, which came immediately after one of the biggest feasts in the church calendar – but very rarely revisited the Brandenburgs, usually favouring thinner works such as the violin and keyboard concertos.
‘The idea of his being in a rush is an interesting one,’ says Venning. ‘If you’re in a hurry, it’s quite useful to have a big piece already composed for the first movement, because it’s an extremely compressed structure for the rest of it. So it’s characteristic of his Whit Monday cantatas for them to have borrowed material.’
Bach manuscripts were previously relatively frequent performers on the auction stage: in the 1980s and 90s manuscript sales were known to offer three or more full autograph scores of Bach. Now, however, his appearances are far rarer. Twelve of the other 22 parts of this cantata are currently held in the Riemenschneider Bach Institute in Ohio, although whether this dispossessed part is returned to its partners after the sale on June 13 remains to be seen.
‘We are rather expecting it to be bought by a collector,’ says Margaret Ford, head of the Printed Books and Manuscripts department. ‘But on the other hand there are some very natural homes in the institutional world.’
Whether the manuscript is bought by an institution that is able to afford it limited exposure, or bought by a collector only to disappear underground for several further generations, it is nevertheless the case that this sale is one of a shrinking number of opportunities to see the confident sweep of Bach’s handwriting listing slightly to the right, on the same, slightly browning paper he used for all his scores, whether transcribed himself or by his amanuenses.
‘With all manuscript material, as with Old Master Pictures, there are just fewer examples in circulation,’ says Ford. ‘This year Christie’s will be exhibiting the best of what it is offering for sale, and the Bach will be one of two manuscript lots that will be part of that. There will be Degas, Rodin, Picasso and Bach. That just shows the recognition and rarity it deserves.’
The Taille part of Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte will be on view at Christie’s between Friday June 8 and Tuesday June 12. See www.christies.com/calendar for details.