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New Mendelssohn Discoveries in the Music Division


Felix Mendelssohn's signature from Drexel 4903Felix Mendelssohn's signature from Drexel 4903It is still possible to discover amazing things in the New York Public Library in 2013, its 108th year of existence. What's even more amazing about this story is that the discovered items have been with the Library since its founding and have gone unnoticed until now. I am happy to write this story in anticipation of February 3, 2013, the 203rd birthday of composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

Part of my work in the Music Division involves cataloging scores — not newly published materials, but a portion of the over 100,000 legacy of scores that do not appear in the online catalog. More specifically, I catalog those considered rare or unique, and would be used only in our Special Collections Reading Room. I am currently working my way through the Drexel Collection, the personal library of businessman and philanthropist Joseph W. Drexel (of the Drexel family of Philadelphia). Originally donated to the Lenox Library in 1888, the Drexel Collection is a founding collection of the New York Public Library. (There are well over 6,000 books and scores in the Drexel Collection. To see the portion that's cataloged, do a search in the Classic Catalog under the call number Drexel.)

Recently I came across two manuscripts for works by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: his overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt and the overture to his opera Die Hochzeit des Camacho. I could immediately tell that the handwriting was not Mendelssohn's. (The Music Division is lucky to have over 700 letters to and from Mendelssohn and his family, so I'm familiar with his handwriting.) Instead, this was the work of a copyist. (It should be remembered that until the advent of cheap reproduction of music in the mid-19th century, hand-copied music proliferated.) The Music Division has many copyists' scores so I was not particularly surprised until I began to look a little more deeply. The manuscript containing the overture to Die Hochzeit des Camacho contained no extraneous markings. But the score to Meeresstille contained sometimes numerous emendations in pencil. I was particularly struck by this passage:

A passage from a copyist's manuscript to Mendelssohn's Meeresstille und glückliche FahrtA passage from a copyist's manuscript to Mendelssohn's Meeresstille und glückliche FahrtUsually when one finds extraneous markings in a score, they were made by a conductor, often highlighting changes in tempo or instrumentalists' entrances. These were not a conductor's markings but rather compositional variants. I went to the shelflist to see how my predecessors cataloged it. Even though we no longer have a public card catalog, we still retain the shelflist: the cards which inventory the volumes as they sit on the shelves. The cards for these manuscripts (cataloged on August 27, 1937) were not very informative:

Shelflist card for Drexel 5049, cataloged August 27, 1937Shelflist card for Drexel 5049, cataloged August 27, 1937I went to check a printed score of Meeresstille and found that the pencil emendations are the accepted version of the work. Wow! Could that mean that the copyist's work in ink represented an earlier version?

Julius Rietz., Digital ID 1575507, New York Public LibraryLithograph of Julius Rietz (1812-1877)

I wasn't being presumptious, because we have a well-known example in the case of Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul (Paulus in German). After Mendelssohn finished his first draft of of the oratorio, he sent a vocal score — a manuscript made by a profesional copyist — to his close friend Julius Rietz, who supervised initial choral rehearsals. (Rietz was editor of the first major 19th century edition of Mendelssohn's works.) Even after the composer revised the work, Rietz held on to the vocal score, and it now forms part of the Drexel Collection with the call number Drexel 4779. (This unique copy is well-known to Mendelssohn scholars and has been used for publication of the earlier version of the oratorio.)

I went to the main sourcebook for Mendelssohn research, Ralf Wehner's Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke (usually abbreviated as MWV, i.e. Mendelssohn Werke Verzeichnis). A remarkable aspect of this 600-page catalog is that Wehner and his associates included every bit of information they could find. Since Mendelssohn was a prodigious letter writer (over 7,000 letters from him exist in various libraries), it is often possible to know the detailed chronological and compositional genesis of many of his musical works.

I looked up the entries for Die Hochzeit des Camacho and Meeresstille. My excitement grew as I read that copies of these works had been made but whose current whereabouts have been unknown since 1868! I hastily snapped a few pictures and sent them to Dr. Wehner, author of the MWV (whom I had the good fortune to meet when he was doing research in the Music Division some years ago). He wrote back and provided a thrilling explanation.

Our score to Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt is indeed an earlier version of the work with Mendelssohn's revisions that had been in Mendelssohn's possession until his death. After his passing, his children sought to organize his Nachlass (estate). They bound his manuscripts into 52 volumes, donating them in 1868 to what is now the Berlin State Library. At the time of their gift however, volumes 16 and 47 were missing. Nevertheless, the missing volumes' contents have been well known: volume 16 contained Meeresstille and the overture to Die Hochzeit des Camacho!

Clearly this was the missing volume 16, missing for nearly 150 years. But how did it become part of the Drexel Collection? Thinking of Drexel 4779, I suggested that maybe Julius Rietz had "borrowed" the volume and didn't return it. Dr. Wehner had a copy of the auction catalog that sold Rietz's Nachlass.

Cover of the auction catalog containing Julius Rietz's estateCover of the auction catalog containing Julius Rietz's estateIt didn't take much searching to see that this volume was sold at Rietz's estate auction, the same auction at which our St. Paul score was sold. It was possibly purchased by one of Joseph Drexel's agents, and found its way to his (and today NYPL's) collection. (A handful of the Drexel Collection's printed scores also come from Rietz's library.)

Bookplate of Julius Rietz on Drexel 4020Bookplate of Julius Rietz on Drexel 4020Upon confirming this discovery, I made copies of the two works and sent them to Dr. Wehner, who told me that the editor of the "overtures" volume of the Leipziger Ausgabe der Werke — the new Mendelssohn edition is currently at work and thrilled to receive this hitherto unknown version. I was only too happy to help further Mendelssohn research! (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt is now in the Catalog as Drexel 5049, and the overture to Die Hochzeit des Camacho is Drexel 5049.1.)

But wait! — there's more.

Since I was corresponding with him, I asked Dr. Wehner for some clarification on another one of our copyists's manuscripts from the Drexel Collection. This is a copyist's manuscript score to Mozart's version of Handel's oratoio Acis and Galatea (cataloged as Drexel 4903). There are introductory notes dated 1834. But of particular interest is the inside cover where a portion of Mendelssohn's name exists. The beginning of this blog entry contains a close-up of the signature, but this shot is of the entire inside cover, including a pencil inscription, "305":

Inside cover of Drexel 4903 with Mendelssohn's inscription and auction lot numberInside cover of Drexel 4903 with Mendelssohn's inscription and auction lot number

Again, because of my familiarity with his letters, I could tell this was really Mendelssohn's signature. But what did this score represent? What was the number 305? I asked Dr. Wehner.

A portion of the Rietz auction catalog showing lot 305A portion of the Rietz auction catalog showing lot 305Dr. Wehner sent a different page scan of the Rietz auction catalog: This score had been lot 305 of the same auction where the St. Paul, Meeresstille and Camacho manuscripts had been sold. But had Mendelssohn actually used it?

It is known that Mendelssohn made his own orchestration of Acis and Galatea. (The manuscript of this version was sold at auction in 2005, purchased by the Handel Society of Göttingen, and has been recorded at least twice.) But Mendelssohn was unhappy with his arrangement and never had it performed. Instead, he preferred Mozart's arrangement. The only known performance of Mendelssohn performing this work was in Berlin on February 4, 1836, where sources indicate he performed the "final scene."

Dr. Wehner advised me to look carefully at Drexel 4903 to see if I could detect any indication of portions that Mendelssohn might had performed. Upon examing each page of the manuscript carefully (there are 163 leaves, or 326 pages), I discovered that in the latter third, beginning at the aria "The Flocks Shall Leave the Mountains," someone has penciled in a different German translation from the one the copyist wrote in ink. There was only one instance of alteration of musical notes:

 The only instance where notes have been changed; you can also see how the text has been emendedDrexel 4903: The only instance where notes have been changed; you can also see how the text has been emendedSo a strong assumption can be made that Mendelssohn used this score for his sole performance of a portion of Acis and Galatea, and the portion was from "The Flocks Shall Leave The Mountains" to the end.

It's not every day that I come across such fantastic finds, but it serves to confirm the richness and value of the Music Division's holdings.

I have several hundred more volumes to catalog of the Drexel Collection, after which I can start working on the hundreds of rare scores and manuscripts that the Music Division acquired after its founding in 1895. Who can predict what discoveries await us!

Dr. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy., Digital ID 1270609, New York Public LibraryDr. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy., Digital ID 1270609, New York Public Library


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This is a pretty awesome find

This is a pretty awesome find Bob!

great story!

Bob, great post, and quite a suspenseful tale of detection on your part! I'll bet more discoveries are afoot

Great post!

Bob, this is an incredible story -- the kind that makes every archivist/librarian/historian salivate! Amazing find, and wonderful post.


What better proof that cataloguing and/or inventorying is not a mechanical and dready task? May you have many other such surprises and be sure to tell the world!

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