Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Saving Schnittke for the Nation. But which one? And why?

My heart sank to read of a sale at Sotheby’s in London at the end of this month, at which will be auctioned, among other treasures, Schnittke’s working manuscripts for his Faust Cantata. My first reaction was that these must be priceless, but closer inspection reveals that they are likely to go for £20-30K. As yet very few of Schnittke’s sketches and working scores have been made available to researchers, and the now burgeoning field of Schnittke scholarship often finds itself speculating about issues of creative psychology that could probably be determined through access to existing documents. So to see this, like many other collections before it, change hands from one anonymous private collector to another is galling.
So what’s the solution? Should public libraries or national institutions rally (and spend) to bring these resources into the public domain? If we are to save Schnittke’s manuscripts for the nation, which nation should we save them for? Russia, perhaps, or Germany. This is, after all, one of Schnittke’s most “German” works, but it was written in Moscow. The way that Handel’s work is celebrated provides a model, with museums dedicated to his work in both Germany and Britain, the former at his birthplace in Halle, the latter at his Brook Street home in Mayfair. It could be argued that both countries are being very generous with their precious resources, given that the composer wrote in a predominantly Italian style, wherever he was based.
In the UK, the British Library is the great bastion of source materials: autographs, first editions and the like, and it has an excellent track record of collecting these materials with little concern for the specifically British interests that they might serve. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert are all well represented, along with Purcell and Elgar. But such collections are the exception rather than the rule, and it doesn’t take much digging into the provenance of these manuscripts before magnanimous private benefactors start appearing. The fact is that, however historically significant such documents are, the assumption of our culture is, and always has been, that they are private property, historical significance equating monetary value.
Private collectors have an important part to play, not least in preserving these historical artefacts for future generations, whatever their own motivations might be. No doubt the motivations to amass private collections of historically valuable documents are diverse. It is difficult to imagine anybody buying this collection for its aesthetic value; much of it seems to consist of pages of text typed on an old Soviet typewriter and then scribbled on in pencil. You wouldn’t want it on your wall.
But the private provenance of many valuable documents in publically accessible collections demonstrates that collectors often have posterity in mind. The most significant collection of Schnittke’s sketches and drafts to have surfaced in recent years is that now at the Juilliard School, part of their extensive manuscript collection. There are all sorts of treasures in there, and in fact, when the acquisition was announced, the Schnittke contingent didn’t even get a mention in the high profile press coverage, where the even more impressive Bach and Beethoven manuscripts took centre stage. The source that time round was Bruce Kovner, a hedge-fund billionaire who had apparently been buying up every significant musical manuscript to have appeared at auction for some years. Chances are there are other wealthy collectors out there keen to get their names attached to portions of major library collections, and with that a small place in musical history. Let’s hope the lucky buyer at Sotheby’s next week has something similar planned for their acquisitions.

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