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March 01, 2006

Music manuscripts donated to Juilliard

A few months ago, I wrote about a discovery of a Beethoven manuscript, in the composer's hand, of a transcription for piano four hands of the Grosse Fuge, originally written for string quartet. We later learned (see update to my earlier post) that the manuscript was sold at auction for $1.72 million to an anonymous buyer.

We now know who that anonymous buyer was: Bruce Kovner, a "publicity-shy billionaire and hedge fund manager," who according to the usual political identifications in the New York Times, "is known for his financial support of conservative publications and groups," most prominently the American Enterprise Institute, which the Times refers to as "a conservative research group." Not that it isn't, mind you; it's just that the Times has to identify people and groups who differ from the Times's norm.

Anyway, the Grosse Fuge transcription is only one of a collection of 139 manuscripts amassed by Mr. Kovner over an 11-year period, which he has donated to the Juilliard School in Manhattan. The other manuscripts include major compositions like "the printer's manuscript of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Mozart's autograph of the wind parts of the final scene of 'The Marriage of Figaro,' Schumann's working draft of his Symphony No. 2 and manuscripts of Brahms's Symphony No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 2." Also included are Stravinsky's Petrouchka, Mahler's Ninth Symphony, and Dvorak's Eighth Symphony.

Mr. Kovner explained what he had done:

Mr. Kovner said he began collecting after noticing a raft of manuscripts on the auction market at relatively low prices — low being relative, in that winning bids often exceeded $1 million.

"Clearly in some sense it was almost a primitive reverence for the thing that was created by a composer," he said, in explaining the urge to collect. "It's kind of like an icon."

But, he said, "I realized it was better to make them available to the world rather than to keep them under the mattress." He said he hoped the donation would not only inspire students and aid scholars but also help push more works hidden in dusty archives toward the light of day.
Now, the musicologists will have to overcome their antipathy toward the musicians.
"It's breathtaking," said Neal Zaslaw, a professor of music at Cornell University, when shown a partial list. "Any one of these would be a big deal." Mr. Zaslaw said it was unusual for the manuscripts to go to a performance school not known for musicology rather than to a research university. "But the main thing," he added, "is that these are in a safe place and available for scholars to consult."
Juilliard -- the "performance school" -- is trying to act magnanimous:
Joseph W. Polisi, Juilliard's president, said the collection's presence at the school would help break down the "artificial wall" between scholarship and performance.
The Times article has more about Mr. Kovner, the man, but it's particularly clear that he hasn't let his wealth get to his head.
In a marked departure from most philanthropy in New York, Mr. Kovner said he would not attach his name to the trove of documents, which will be called simply the Juilliard Manuscript Collection.

"I'm happy to participate in ways that promote public discourse and public institutions," he said. "I don't particularly like the cult of names. It's a personal preference."
UPDATE: More here, from the music critic of The New Yorker, with images of some pages of the manuscripts, and a PDF list of all the manuscripts.