It wasn’t National Treasure, but a stunning moment nonetheless for Michael Maul, a researcher with the Leipzig Bach Archive, when he found a completely unknown composition by Johann Sebastian Bach in a crate full of birthday greetings to a German duke at the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany last month.
Even wilder, the crate was one of five removed from the Library shortly before a September fire that would have destroyed them along with about 50,000 historic books (another 62,000 were damaged).
Maul had been working since 2002 on a systematic survey of all central German church, communal and state archival collections, when he found the two-page composition. “If I hadn’t decided to go through them systematically, I would never have thought to look there,” Maul told AP.
The score, in Bach’s own hand, dates from October 1713, when the composer was 28, and represents a setting of a “strophic aria with ritornello for soprano, strings, and basso continuo” composed on the occasion of the 52nd birthday of duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, whom Bach then served as court organist. The twelve-stanza sacred poem with the text “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ ihn” (“Everything with God and nothing without him”), the duke’s motto, was written by the theologian Johann Anton Mylius.
It is the first unknown vocal work by Bach to have been discovered since 1935, when the single-movement cantata fragment “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” was discovered.
“It is no major composition but an occasional work in the form of an exquisite and highly refined strophic aria, Bach’s only contribution to a musical genre popular in late 17th-century Germany,” said Professor Christoph Wolff of Harvard University, chair of the Board of the Bach Archive, initiator, and supervisor of the current research project. “I am extremly proud of Michael who is a most resourceful researcher,” he added. “In less than three years he uncovered an unparalleled number of new archival Bach documents, but this is the first time he presented a musical discovery. The overall research project is far from being over and I am quite sure that sooner or later Michael Maul will make news again.”
English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, this year’s winner of the Bach Medal of the city of Leipzig (where Bach was cantor of St. Thomas Church for 27 years), is preparing to record the piece.