Monday, December 7, 2015

Bach went home to Leipzig

By Christoph Wolff

The musician, scholar, bibliophile, and philanthropist William Hurd Scheide, a 1936 Princeton University alumnus who died on November 14, 2014 at age 100, left his extraordinary collection of some 2,500 rare books and manuscripts – including significant musical autographs by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and others – to Princeton University. With an appraised value of about $300 million, it turned out to be the largest gift in the University's history.

Only a single yet most special item from this large and priceless collection went a different way. For a long time, it had been Scheide's wish that the original Bach portrait, which he acquired in the early 1950s, would be returned to the place where it originated. It should – as he put it – "go home" to Leipzig, the most important and final station of the composer. To that end he bequeathed the portrait to the Leipzig Bach Archive where it should be on display for the general public in the Bach Museum on St. Thomas Square, directly across from the Church where the St. Matthew Passion and other works were first performed. Scheide had become a founding member of the Bach Archive's Board of Curators when, after the fall of the Berlin wall, it was re-established as a research institute and public charitable foundation.

Hausmann's portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach.
The "Scheide" Bach portrait is the later and much better preserved of two extant versions of 1746 and 1748, respectively, both painted by Johann Gottlob Hausmann. Originally part of the portrait collection of C. P. E. Bach in Berlin and later Hamburg, where it was seen by Charles Burney and other prominent visitors, the picture had been in private possession ever since the death of the Bach son in 1788.

The going home of the Bach portrait was properly celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic and reported by the international press, including the New York Times. On April 29, 2015 there was a small farewell ceremony at the Scheide home in Princeton in the presence of the Scheide family and the Mayor of the City of Leipzig. A small group of singers from the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner serenaded the portrait with some Bach chorales.

The portrait unveiled at St. Nicolai Church. Photograph: Peter Endig/AFP/Getty Images
Some six weeks thereafter, on June 15, at the opening concert of the annual Leipzig Bach Festival in the St. Nicolai Church, the portrait was unveiled for the general public. The next morning, there was a brief welcome ceremony at the painting's final destination in the Leipzig Bach Museum in the presence of members of the Scheide family, the Mayor of Leipzig, and a small group from the St. Thomas Boys Choir. Appropriately, they sang the same Bach chorales which were sounded at the send-off in Princeton so that the two interrelated and rather modest departure and arrival ceremonies turned into the kind of momentous historic event worthy of the great composer.

Christoph Wolff is Professor Emeritus in Historical Musicology at Harvard University and was the previous Director of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig from 2001-2013.

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