Bach, Johann Sebastian. (1685–1750)

Autograph Signature

Autograph signature "JS Bach / 1733" on a page measuring 74 x 27 mm, known to have been clipped from one of the composer's three copies of Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach's Orgel oder Instrument Tabulatur. Provenance: Georg Kinsky; Gehard Herz; private collection, by descent, not previously offered on the market until now. Together with a half-length portrait lithograph, ca. 1840 (Artist unknown. Neumann: Bilddokumente B24).

Autograph material of J.S. Bach is of the utmost rarity. Of the very small number of autograph pieces to have appeared on the market in the past 30 years, only a small number have included the actual autograph signature of the composer, and we aware of only two such offerings since the year 2000. Long perceived as rare, signed material of Bach has become increasingly so in the last decades, as a number of examples have passed into permanent institutional collections. It is thus ever more unlikely that any additional fresh-to-market Bach autograph material will come to light. 

The present example has been extensively documented and before passing to the noted Bach Scholar Gerhard Herz, was in the collection of Georg Kinsky, German musicologist, one of the foremost cataloguers of musical instruments and manuscripts of his day, and the principal compiler of Das Werk Beethovens (Munich and Duisburg: Henle, 1955), the standard thematic catalogue of Beethoven's music. The story of this signature has been told in detail by Gerhard Herz in Studies Renaissance and Baroque Music in Honor of Arthur Mendel, ed. Robert L. Marsha (Kassel: Bärenreiter; Hackensack, New Jersey: J. Boonin, 1974), pp. 254-263 and 2 pp. of illustrations. 

In the late 1950s, Professor Gerhard Herz of Louisville, Kentucky, received from a cousin this signature, acquired shortly after World War I from Georg Kinsky. At first puzzled by some of the idiosyncrasies of the present example, in 1969, Bach's Calov Bible re-emerged in St. Louis, Missouri, showing on each of its three title pages Bach's signature characterized by the same JSB monogram as seen here and the same year: 1733. Subsequently, Herz set about seeking to determine the source of the signature in his possession, and published the following account of his discovery (“A Bach Signature in the Possession of Gerhard Herz.” Bach, vol. 9, no. 4, 1978, pp. 23–24):

"We know that Bach entered his name into Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach's Orgel oder Instrument Tabulatur (1571), of which he owned three copies. The copy inherited by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach came later into the possession of Carl Ferdinand Becker, who was the organist in Mendelssohn's Leipzig Conservatory, one of the founders of the Bach Gesellschaft and an avid bibliophile. In 1856, Becker bequeathed his vast collection to the City Library of Leipzig. Shortly after 1870, Bach's signature was cut from the front flyleaf of Ammerbach's Tabulatur, a theft that was dutifully recorded by Alfred Dörffel on the volume's back flyleaf. Since this is the only cut-out Bach signature documented in history, the question suggested itself: is the Herz signature the one removed from Bach's Ammerbach Tabulatur over a hundred years ago? The reverse side of the Herz signature shows a curious pasted-on irregular blue area. Informed of this, Professor Werner Neumann in Leipzig kindly sent Herz one of the ex libris labels, C. F. Becker used to affix to the books and music of his collection. Since it was, likewise, blue and slightly larger than the blue area on his signature, Herz made the following experiment. Plucking a few fibers from the blue area of his Bach signature, as well as from the Becker ex libris label , he carefully crossed these fibers and had them photographed under microscope at the Medical School of the University of Louisville. The same was done with a fiber plucked from the yellow-brown paper of the Bach signature proper. The photographic result clearly demonstrated the structural identity of the crossed blue fibers while showing at the same time an entirely different organic structure of the fiber taken from the Bach signature paper."

The book in question is a copy of Elias Ammerbach’s Orgel oder Instrument Tabulatur, printed in Leipzig in 1571. Ammerbach (c. 1530-1597) was educated at Leipzig (1548-1549) and probably spent the rest of his life as Organist at the city’s Thomaskirche. An anthology of transcriptions for organ or clavier, the work contains several early German songs not found in any other sources and, though it is not known if he composed works himself, he developed a new method of musical notation – tablature – for keyboard playing, known as ‘new German organ tablature’. Arrangements of works by well-known composers, including Orlande de Lassus and Josquin des Prez, were printed in his tablature. Bach himself worked in Leipzig for much of his life, serving as Cantor at the prestigious Thomasschule – in addition to directing music at the city’s four principal churches and during official city functions – from 1723 until his death in 1750, evidently acquiring this volume during his time there, inscribing his name and the year on the title page.

The year of the present signature was a significant one for the composer. On 1 February 1733, Augustus II the Strong, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Elector of Saxony, died. Five months of mourning followed, during which all public music-making was suspended. Bach used this opportunity to work on the composition of a Missa, a portion of the liturgy sung in Latin and common to both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic rites, his aim being to dedicate the work to the new sovereign Augustus III, a convert to Catholicism, with the hope of obtaining the title "Electoral Saxon Court Composer". Upon its completion, Bach visited Augustus III in Dresden and presented him with a copy of the Kyrie–Gloria Mass BWV 232 I (early version), together with a petition to be given a court title, dated July 27, 1733; in the accompanying inscription on the wrapper of the mass he complains that he had "innocently suffered one injury or another" in Leipzig.  The petition did not meet with immediate success, but Bach eventually got his title and was made court composer to Augustus III in 1736.

We are grateful to Christoph Wolff for his assistance in the authentication of this item.  (19063)

Classical Music
Autograph Document