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Preserving Bach’s manuscripts – Music weblog

Preserving Bach’s manuscripts – Music weblog

2023-04-19 22:42:46

Two Johann Sebastian Bach manuscripts within the British Library’s music collections, the autograph manuscript of the second e-book Das wohltemperierte Klavier (The Effectively-Tempered Clavier, BWV 870-893) and of the cantata ‘Wo soll ich fliehen hin?’ (BWV 5), lately acquired some a lot deserved consideration from our colleagues in Conservation – and because of beneficiant assist from The Leche Trust. This weblog submit focuses on the work undertaken on the Effectively-Tempered Clavier manuscript, which we’re happy to say is now full.

Manuscript of the prelude in C major by J.S. Bach

Autograph manuscript of the Prelude in C main, from The Effectively-Tempered Clavier, Ebook II (BWV 870). Add MS 35021, f. 1.

The Effectively-Tempered Clavier, Ebook II

Bach’s Effectively-Tempered Clavier (named after a system of tuning – ‘well temperament’) is a kind of musical works that appears to justify the grand claims made about it. On the face of it, it’s a easy sequence of preludes and fugues in each key, main and minor: 24 in all, with two units of those (giving the sequence its nickname ‘the 48’)’. However it’s additionally a jaw-dropping feat of compositional virtuosity, with Bach utilizing his immense contrapuntal abilities to weave collectively separate musical traces that match collectively logically (however by no means too predictably) and but additionally produce impressed music on the similar time.

The British Library’s manuscript of the second e-book of the Effectively-Tempered Clavier (Add MS 35021 and Add MS 38068) can be a set of particular person manuscripts for 21 of the preludes and fugues within the second e-book (these in C-sharp minor, D main and F minor are sadly not preserved right here and will need to have been separated from the others at an earlier date). These had been composed between 1739 and 1742.

Every prelude and fugue was largely written out to (very satisfyingly) match on a single facet of an open folded web page, avoiding the necessity to flip the sheet over – even when this at occasions means a little bit of a squeeze. (No quantity of compressing was going to suit the prolonged prelude and fugue in A-flat main onto one facet – this carries on over to the subsequent facet). Many of the items have been written out by Johann Sebastian Bach himself, aside from 4 and a bit that are identified to be within the hand of his second spouse, Anna Magdalena (these in C minor, D minor, E main, G main and the start of the prelude in F main).


Manuscript of the prelude in C minor by J.S. Bach, in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach

Manuscript of the Prelude in C minor (BWV 871), within the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach. Add MS 35021, f. 2

Planning – what had been the problems?

Sadly, even in optimum storage situations, chemical and bodily processes that pose a danger to manuscripts like these can, over time, nonetheless happen. We minimise threats to the gathering as a lot as attainable, by controlling components like temperature and humidity, through the use of acceptable housing and by limiting entry to, and use of, significantly weak supplies. Nonetheless, even with strict environmental monitoring a typical drawback that’s tough to halt completely is one in every of iron gall ink corrosion. Like a lot music of this era and earlier, these Bach manuscripts are particularly in danger from this because of the make-up of the inks that had been used – iron sulphate and acidic tannins specifically, which, over time, oxidise and ‘eat away’ on the paper. There’s an attention-grabbing weblog submit on this on our Collection Care blog.

When it got here to planning conservation work, there have been two major points to contemplate. One was the corroding ink, as talked about above. It is a specific drawback the place the ink is utilized thickly to a small space, as tends to occur when writing music notation. There have been varied examples of this on the Bach manuscript, starting from seen holes to much less apparent hairline cracks, making it extraordinarily weak.

Image showing the effects of iron gall ink corrosion on paper - there is a whole in the page

The results of iron gall ink corrosion

The opposite concern was the earlier methodology of preserving the manuscript. The manuscript pages had been sure right into a single massive quantity, with every folio mounted into paper home windows. This mounting paper had aged poorly nonetheless, and you’ll see within the image beneath how, over time, its acidic properties have led to it discolouring and changing into brittle – which means some had been now not safe within the binding. Stress from the acidic border was additionally inflicting stress to the centre of every bifolio of the manuscript, growing the danger of splitting. It was clear that the time had come to provide the manuscript a extra acceptable long-term residence.

The old binding for Add MS 35021

The outdated binding for Add MS 35021

Image from inside the old binding, with the manuscript mounted in the old paper

Contained in the outdated binding. Right here you’ll be able to see the manuscript within the outdated paper mounts.

Conservation over time

One thing that basically made an impression in the midst of this challenge was the altering method to conservation through the years – comprehensible given evolving information, the emergence of latest applied sciences and shifting emphasis in skilled requirements. So, whereas work undertaken a long time in the past may seem questionable now, nonetheless we will perceive that it was completed with the perfect intentions given the instruments and information obtainable on the time.

A superb instance is in relation to iron gall ink. There are only a few methods to completely halt the corrosive results of the ink and limiting the harm is usually the one method. Nonetheless, one therapy that emerged within the mid-Nineteen Nineties includes an aqueous therapy, utilizing a Calcium Phytate resolution to neutralise the acidic iron content material within the ink.

Lately, the British Library has established processes for this therapy. However nonetheless it’s not one thing to be undertaken calmly. Whereas intensive testing previous to therapy ensures that each the construction of the paper and the ink will stay safe, nonetheless the method has the impact of washing the paper, so eradicating filth and accretions but additionally, probably, beneficial however much less apparent proof of historic use.  

The choices usually are not simple, as weighed towards the potential danger of generally shedding potential sources of historic proof, equivalent to staining on the paper, is the danger of the manuscript deteriorating to such an extent that any form of examine turns into inconceivable.


Given the enduring standing of this manuscript, many individuals had been concerned in resolution making and the challenge was a collaboration between curatorial and conservation groups. One goal that was clear was that the folios of the manuscript wanted a brand new type of housing, which might maintain them safer.

By way of therapy of the iron gall ink, we determined to take a cautious method for now, and solely apply calcium phytate therapy to 2 folios, which suffered from completely different and extra urgent points from the others. These (which contained the A-flat main prelude and fugue, ff. 13 and 14), had been faraway from the sure quantity greater than a century in the past. At completely different factors since then that they had acquired conservation work of differing ranges of invasiveness, together with a coating of clear warmth set tissue utilized to at least one facet of the fugue and repairs alongside the fold of that web page too. The purpose in focusing a better degree of therapy on these specific folios was to take away the corrosive properties of the ink on probably the most problematic examples among the many Effectively-Tempered Clavier manuscripts and likewise to reverse among the unwell results of earlier therapies. This work would additionally make it attainable to extra safely and securely home these folios in the identical method as the opposite folios, eradicating them from their short-term housing.

Image of the Prelude in A-flat major (BWV 886), showing one leaf protected by heat-set tissue

Prelude in A-flat main (BWV 886), displaying earlier conservation work. Add MS 35021, f. 13v.

Conservation work begins

All our manuscripts are particular and distinctive in fact, and obtain due care and a focus to make sure their long-term preservation. However generally there are these manuscripts which might be so iconic that to even take a look at them fills you with awe: in these circumstances the accountability of guaranteeing their long-term safekeeping is immense. This was actually the case right here and it was a beautiful, humbling second when the amount containing the manuscripts was unpacked within the conservation studio. We took a second to take heed to the items as we appeared on the rating – with the notes on the web page nearly dancing in entrance of us!

After thorough documentation and testing, therapy started by disbinding the amount and eradicating the folios from the acidic inlay paper; this was completed mechanically utilizing a poultice of sieved gelatine mousse. While eradicating the outdated acidic paper mounts we uncovered the sting of the textual content beforehand coated by the inlay.

Aqueous therapy of the 2 folios

The therapy of folios 13 and 14 was achieved in three levels: first the paperwork had been washed then handled with calcium phytate after which calcium bicarbonate. This helped stabilise the corrosive properties of the ink and treatment among the unwell results of the earlier therapy. 

Image showing conservation work under way - the manuscript is being lifted from the old paper mount in an aqueous solution

See Also

Eradicating the acidic paper inlay throughout aqueous therapy

Previous to immersion, multispectral pictures of those folios had been additionally taken by our imaging scientist, guaranteeing we’ve a transparent report of the manuscript previous to therapy. Multispectral imaging captures picture information inside decided wavelength ranges throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. It may be used to look at discolourations and marking, by evaluating the “spectral fingerprint” of an accretion to a identified chemical substance. It may possibly additionally reveal issues which might be solely seen on completely different elements of the spectrum and permit us to seize the true colors of the picture to precisely assess any ink modifications after therapy.

The prevailing situation of those specific folia made them a precedence to deal with on this method, however the expertise of doing so will enable us to weigh within the steadiness the advantages or not of endeavor related therapy on different folios sooner or later, ought to the degradation of the corrosive ink progress. For now, fragile inks on the opposite folios of the manuscript have been supported with a really wonderful toned Japanese tissue and gelatine utilizing a low moisture approach. This was carried out over a light-weight field to make sure any weakened areas of iron gall ink had been noticed.

After Remedy

All of the folios have now been housed individually in a extra sympathetic, double sided mount. This inflexible mount permits every web page to be accurately supported and seen in full and is appropriate for each storage and exhibition show, minimising the necessity for dealing with or additional work. These card mounts have then been saved in a number of specifically made acid-free card containers to supply safety on the shelf.

Image showing new card mounts for the manuscirpt

The brand new card mounts for every folio, with protecting flaps on the entrance in again to maintain the manuscripts secure in storage.

Image of one folio after treatment, in the new card mounts

Add MS 35021, f. 23r, after therapy, within the new card mount.


This work, undertaken due to the experience of colleagues in Conservation and with beneficiant assist from The Leche Belief, has ensured that the manuscripts themselves at the moment are higher preserved and guarded for posterity.

The British Library’s accountability as custodian of those iconic examples of Bach’s creativity includes discovering a steadiness between defending the manuscripts themselves and discovering methods for them to be appreciated by a large viewers. Excessive-quality digital pictures are a key instrument for offering entry, however this conservation challenge may also make it attainable for researchers to work with the unique materials the place that is vital – additional enhancing our understanding of Bach’s artistic follow. It would additionally make it safer to exhibit these iconic collections past the studying room, in our gallery areas, the place you’ll be able to be part of us and expertise the actual factor.



Samantha Hare (Conservator)

Chris Scobie (Lead Curator, Music Manuscripts)

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