article 41: 1741?

Can anyone who cares about Bach, and the “Goldberg Variations” in particular, read Olivier Alain’s account (Revue de Musicologie, Tome 61, No.2 (1975) pp. 244-294) of his discovery of the composer’s own copy of the original print without a surging pulse rate? The tale was first related to me by Alan Curtis shortly after the event. The distinguished French organist (brother of Marie-Claire), composer and musicologist was on an inspection trip for the Ministry of Culture when he attended a performance of the piece by a professor of the Conservatoire National de Région de Strasbourg, Paul Blumenroeder. The day before, M. Blumenroeder had shown Alain his copy of the original edition, and was careful to point out the manuscript addition on the inside of the back cover. Alain writes, “Casting my unsuspecting eyes over this page, I thought I saw a familiar aspect to the handwriting.” It was, of course, that of Bach himself, and the page contained the sole source for 12 of 14 canons über die ersteren acht fundamental-Noten vorheriger Aria (now BWV 1087). M. Alain informs us further that, according to the then-owner, several “notoires” musicians had seen the page without recognizing its significance. No names are given, in an admirable instance of discrete self-congratulation. Blumenroeder bought the thin volume in 1932. It had been part of the library of Franz Stockhausen (1839-1926), former director of the Conservatoire and maître de chapelle of the great cathedral. Alain knows of no earlier provenance.

Before I recorded the Aria mit verschiedenen Veraenderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen for Teldec/Das Alte Werk in 1990, the music department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France allowed me to examine this sacred document in order to check it against my copy of the 1977 edition in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe. On the bottom right corner of the page with the canons I thought I saw a very faint date in faded brown ink, about 2mm high: 1741. Since the date of the original publication is not entirely certain (Alain says it was 1742, but the weight of scholarly opinion now leans toward 1741), I thought this could be an interesting contribution. Distracted by a busy life at the time, I did nothing about it.

The presumed date was partly obscured by a stain of some kind, but I made a drawing of it, and asked the BNF to make photographs in natural and infrared light. These came back in black and white, and were inconclusive because of the lost color differences. They lay in a drawer until recently, when I lent them to an authority on Bach-family handwriting. I could see that it was not that of Sebastian himself, but wondered if it might be by one of the heirs. The answer eventually came back that it was not writing at all, but an Artefakt – a random glyph. There was an excellent color scan online at Gallica, I was told, and enlargement failed to show anything convincing. (This type of person is very cautious, as ex officio they must be.)

The colors on the scan still didn’t jive with the vivid memory I treasured. In order to determine whether I had gone cuckoo on the subject, there was nothing for it but to ask permission once again to see the manuscript with my own eyes. To my astonished delight, an email to the director of the music department on a Sunday afternoon got a positive response within the hour.

Two weeks later Naoko and I were in the salle de lecture, at the same table where I previously sat, near the staff observers where grandes réserves have to be consulted. When the box was brought over I told the young man my heart was pounding. “Le mien aussi,” he answered. Could Naoko take photographs with her iPhone? – no problem. That somewhat surprised me, as did the fact that gloves were not required. So, after the fragile volume was laid out on red velvet cushions, I found myself in a cold sweat, my damp fingers leafing through Bach’s Handexemplar. Naoko first took photos of the canons, then several extreme close-ups of the spot with the date, then some of Bach’s added corrections and ornamentation in the variations. I noted that accidentals presented the same proofreading problems to Bach as I had had with my editions, and which had repeatedly even stumped the professionals at Breitkopf & Härtel. Then, after a quarter hour and a final moment of contemplation of the Verschiedene Canones, we were back out in the sunshine on the Square Louvois. We went looking for François Couperin’s apartment on the nearby Rue des Petits Champs, and later found we had given up half a block too soon.

So is there a date on that last page or not? Somewhat cowed by Leipzig’s authority, I was already less sure than I was back in 1988. The stain covering what I thought was the 1 and the 7 is part of a larger pattern that I only noticed on this latter occasion: two near-rectangles of irregular spots point diagonally inward from the outer corners of the front and back cover pages (the front bears the Clavier Ubung title, the back was blank until Bach added the canons). Something the color of rust has obviously leaked through from the outer sides. All these stains have been eliminated in the familiar Marc Fuzeau facsimile, and on the facsimile provided in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe the 41 is so tiny as to be practically invisible.

I am no expert, but the only explanation that occurs to me is that the pages of the edition were clipped together at some point by an iron implement. It might have happened when the faded red thread binding was added, as an aid to stability. The board cover is clean. The subtle color differences between the Gallica scan and the photographs Naoko made are vexing. What the naked eye sees is slightly different yet again. Readers can judge for themselves how I might have believed this to be no phantom by looking at the photo below, taken at the Bibliothèque nationale on 29 September 2021 by Naoko Akutagawa.

Only when I viewed Naoko’s close-ups in extreme enlargement did I see that the markings I thought represented 41 followed tiny trenches and ridges in the paper, sometimes even bundles of thread. The same applies to my 17, with a more intense background. The color difference between “41” and the larger stain when viewed so closely only looks like a result of less rust leakage.

The date I thought I had discovered for nearly half of my lifetime was just another of life’s illusions after all. It was a disappointment, to be sure. But visiting Paris in early autumn and working on an interesting problem with my wife, not to mention years of hopeful speculation, were excellent compensation. The post-BibNat lunch at Le Grand Véfour was another; even better was the next day’s visit to the world’s finest private collection of early keyboards at the home of a grand homme.

I am left to ponder the odd coincidence that an Artefakt so closely resembling the probable date of publication of Clavierübung IV appears right after Bach’s final message on the page: a symbol for “etcetera“, meaning that the canonic potential of the subject was by no means exhausted by 14 works of increasing complexity.*


* 14 is the numerological symbol for his surname, which, along with its reverse 41 for Johann Sebastian Bach, both appear too often and too prominently – notably on the chalice at the Bachhaus in Eisenach – to be coincidence; pace the ghost of Gustav Leonhardt. See article 30 on this site.

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