Bach fan thrills to discovery of lost 1724 pages

August 31, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

For 25 years, Teri Noel Towe has deeply treasured a slim volume bound in red morocco that he acquired at an auction house, a volume containing six handwritten pages of a musical manuscript.

"Just pick it up," says Towe, a trust and estate lawyer in New York, "and a funny electricity goes through your body. You are holding in your hands something Johann Sebastian Bach held in his."

Only Bach would have held a little bit more.

The manuscript is missing pages three and four of what should be eight pages of the original organ part for the cantata Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (Christ Our Lord Came to the Jordan), composed in 1724 and numbered BWV 7 in the Bach catalog.

Much of the score was written out by a Bach pupil, but several of the composer's own notations are clearly recognizable, making this a valuable item - Towe paid $10,000 for it in 1983.

Pages three and four, containing the last measures of the opening choral movement and all of the following bass aria, cover the front and back of a music sheet presumed lost. Until now.

Thanks to an inquisitive Frenchman named Philippe d'Anchald and the detection power of the Internet, the missing link has been discovered about 30 miles from Paris, where it has been housed in a museum, never fully identified, since 1918.

Although not quite as newsy as the discovery of unknown music by Bach, the missing pages should interest scholars. The organ part used in performances of the cantata today is based on the extant harpsichord part, Towe says. Now it will be possible to see exactly what the organist saw on pages three and four of his score at the cantata's premiere in St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig on June 24, 1724.

"I'm thrilled this has been found," says Towe. "What Philippe has accomplished would not have been possible without the digital age."

D'Anchald, a lawyer for an international bank, is a Bach enthusiast (his eldest son is named Jean-Sebastien). About six years ago, while doing online research about a historic organ in Germany, he came across Towe's home pages and an article detailing the missing pages of the 1724 organ music.

"I was fascinated by the story of that manuscript and put it in the recesses of my memory," d'Anchald says in an e-mail. Earlier this summer, that memory was jogged "quite by chance" when a historian friend of d'Anchald's asked him to look at the copy of a will left by Sigismund Neukomm, an Austrian-born composer who died in Paris in 1858.

D'Anchald recalled reading Neukomm's name in Towe's article. On the organ manuscript is an inscription that identifies the music as a gift Neukomm received from August Eberhard Muller, one of Bach's successors as cantor at St. Thomas' Church. It is known that Neukomm visited Leipzig in 1808.

Perusing Neukomm's will, "I noticed that there were a few music manuscripts in the inventory, so I wondered where they could be," d'Anchald says.

That curiosity led to a Google search yielding "a very short piece of information - two lines - mentioning that in a small museum in a city south of Paris called Melun there was a sheet of music given by Neukomm to a certain Auguste Vincent," d'Anchald says, "and that it was probably a Bach autograph."

He obtained from the museum's curator photos of the music sheet and e-mailed them to Towe. On Aug. 22, d'Anchald traveled to the museum for a first-hand look. "Now I can affirm that the Melun manuscript contains the missing pages three and four," he says.

Towe, who has compared the photo copies with the rest of his volume, is equally sure.

The two 60-year-old men, who have never met and have only communicated via the Internet, are still exchanging theories on why part of this score was ever extracted and presented by Neukomm to Vincent, an obscure figure who studied piano, d'Anchald discovered, with a friend of Chopin's.

Towe, who has lectured for the American Bach Society and is involved in noted Baltimore filmmaker Mike Lawrence's Bach Project, a documentary currently in production, has traced much of his prized Bach manuscript's history.

It found its way to London, where it was bound (on the cover is printed "John Sebastian Bach"). It was exhibited there in 1904, sold in Germany in 1913 and sold again in the 1930s by a New York autograph dealer to a private collector.

When it came up for sale again, Towe, who had loved the cantata since first hearing it during his college days at Princeton, was waiting.

"What I acquired on Oct. 20, 1983," he says, "was the privilege, the pleasure, and, above all, the responsibility, of being its custodian for a while."

Towe has no immediate plans to travel to Melun to see the missing pages and he doesn't anticipate ever possessing them.

"I don't know if French law would even permit it," he says. "If I won Power Ball, yeah, maybe I'd negotiate for it. But my father used to say '40 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.' I have 75 percent. And for the other 25 percent, a digital scan of the pages is more than satisfactory to me."

recent musical finds

2006: Oldest known manuscripts in Bach's hand - copies he made when he was a teenager of works by other composers - discovered in a Weimar, Germany, library.

2005: Unknown 1713 aria by Bach, Alles mit Gott, found in same Weimar library

2005: Manuscript of long-lost 1826 piano duet of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, found in a Pennsylvania seminary library

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.