‘My highlight of 2016’ — J. S. Bach autograph manuscript

Books & Manuscripts specialist Thomas Venning on the autograph manuscript that reveals Bach in the moment of composition, which sold for £2.5 million in July

‘This lovely manuscript by J. S. Bach was the first complete autograph by the composer to come to the market for 20 years,’ explains Thomas Venning, Head of the Books & Manuscripts department at Christie’s in London. ‘Bach’s musical handwriting has an otherworldy beauty. Some musicians talk about his music in almost mystical terms, and you can really feel that in the way the notes dance on the page.’

The rare, original manuscript of the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro for lute or keyboard in E flat major, BWV 998, that Venning is referring to sold for £2,518,500 on 13 July. No more than ten of Bach’s complete autograph manuscripts are thought to survive in private hands. Dated to between 1735 and 1740, this autograph reveals Bach in the moment of composition — the fluent calligraphy indicates his confident conception of the piece, but the corrections and his obvious difficulty in fitting the piece onto the available paper suggest that he was writing down the composition for the first time. 

The manuscript represents a remarkable stepping stone in the evolution of Western classical music, and as such Venning felt its appeal would reach beyond Christie’s existing buyers. ‘We believed that something as wonderful as this would draw in people who had never bid in this field before,’ he explains. And so it would prove.

The manuscript was taken on tour and, says Venning, ‘There was a real thrill in being able to talk about it and engage with collectors and music-lovers, and also to listen to the work performed in the presence of the original pages on which it was composed 280 years ago. The eventual buyer came to a client event in Hong Kong — actually as a plus one — and simply fell in love with it. He had never bought anything remotely like this before.’

It has been an outstanding year for the London Books department, which has sold four lots for more than £1 million each. In May a Shakespeare First Folio, published in 1623, realised £1.87m. And on the same day that the Bach autograph was auctioned, Christie’s also sold Rheticus’s 1540 account of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory of the universe for £1,818,500, as well as a first edition of Basilius Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis (1613) for £1,930,500.

‘For me personally, however — as an autographs specialist, and as the son of a musician who is devoted to Bach’s music — the Bach was particularly special,’ confesses our specialist.