Johann Sebastian Bach manuscript

Johann Sebastian Bach’s autograph manuscript for the cantata for Ascension Day: Auf Christ Himmelfahrt Allein which has been acquired by the Bodleian Libraries.

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Allocated as part of the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, it has settled £3.65m of inheritance tax.

Bach manuscripts do not appear on the market very often. However, the composer’s autograph for Prelude, Fugue & Allegro in E flat major for lute or keyboard emerged at Christie’s in July 2016, selling for £2.18m.

The Bodleian’s example is one of only four known Bach manuscripts in the UK. The 16 pages feature the handwritten composition for the cantata for Ascension Day: Auf Christ Himmelfahrt Allein. It is known as ‘the Kohn manuscript’, named after the great collector Sir Ralph Kohn, a medical scientist who had been born in Leipzig but came to Britian as a refugee in 1940 after his family fled Germany to avoid Nazi persecution.

Kohn died in 2016 aged 88 and the manuscript has come to the Bodleian from the estate of his wife Zahava.

‘Magnificent example’

The Kohn manuscript is described by the Bodleian as ‘a magnificent example of a composing draft, which sheds light on one of Bach's finest cantatas, a testament to the composer’s swiftness and elegance of writing’.

The document is written in brown and black ink and is in exceptional condition with the erosion of paper being mostly limited to the edges, making it one of the best-preserved Bach manuscripts.

The cantata itself was composed for the feast of the ascension on 10 May 1725, but it did not appear in print until 1878, 150 years after it was written. The short, festive cantata, which lasts less than 20 minutes in performance, is scored for two horns, three different types of oboe, trumpet, strings and continuo, with four-part chorus, and alto, tenor and bass soloists.

Special collections

The largest collections of Bach’s manuscripts are in Berlin and Leipzig with most of the surviving cantata manuscripts now in institutions either in Germany, Poland and the US. In terms of the other three in the UK, two are held at the British Library and one is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The Kohn manuscript was previously exhibited at Buckingham Palace in the early 2000s when the piece was performed for the then Prince of Wales. It will now join the music archive of the Bodleian’s Special Collections which already includes the M. Deneke Mendelssohn collection – a major group of manuscripts relating to Felix Mendelssohn which contains the latter’s manuscript copies of many of Bach’s works.

The Bach manuscript will be displayed in the Bodleian Libraries' current exhibition Write Cut Rewrite which runs until 5 January 2025 at the Weston Library’s Treasury.