Reflections on librarians and time, I: Bach, anyone?

This is intended to be the first of a series of blog posts under the rubric, Reflections on librarians and time. It is a pervasive, multidimensional theme, which impacts the library and information professions in many ways. I shall indulge myself by meandering through it as thoughts strike me, in no particular order and to no particular plan.

As I grow older, I have become more aware of the passing of time. Time seems to pass more rapidly. The days and seasons are shorter. I seem to get less done, probably because I’m slower. I waste time because I dither and fuss. I also seem to read more obituaries.

While working on the first chapter of my book on international and comparative librarianship (Lor 2019), I spent some time looking at the history of international librarianship, and I tried to identify a suitable periodization for the topic. I became increasingly aware of librarians’ world-wide and timeless striving for universality, for building collections that are comprehensive in respect of genre, geography, and time – a self-imposed burden which causes librarians and information workers always to be looking both backwards, to retrieve, record and preserve the documentary heritage of the past, and forwards, to keep up with and anticipate the flood of new information-bearing media and to ensure that they can provide future users with prompt access to it.

These thoughts were prompted, in a rather roundabout way, by reading a book about Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello, The cello suites: in search of a baroque masterpiece, by Eric Siblin (2011). The book is written in an accessible American middle-brow non-fiction style – heavy-handed editors in American publishing houses ensure that every non-fiction book reads as if written by the same author for readers with a high school education, but that is a subject for another ramble. Siblin relates how an almost forgotten and greatly underrated work by Bach was resurrected by the great Catalan cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals (1876-1973). At the age of 13, Casals discovered the sheet music in a second-hand bookshop off Barcelona’s Ramblas, was gripped by what he saw, and spent many years mastering the suites. When he finally performed the suites, which had been considered to be pedestrian exercises for cello students, in a concert hall, they were received with great acclaim. This relaunched interest in them, and they have since been recorded by scores of top-flight cellists. Siblin, a popular music reviewer rather than a musicologist, deftly interweaves the story of the resurrection of the suites with the life stories of Bach and Casals and with his own journey of discovery.

This is the only known authentic portrait of J.S. Bach, painted in Leipzig in 1748 by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. It is now in the Bach Archive in that city. Image from Wikimedia Commons,

I’m a lover of music of the Baroque period and Bach’s cello suites happen to be my favourite piece of music, so much so that my final wishes include the request that the first movement of the fourth suite be played at my funeral – that is, if a competent cellist is available.

An accomplished cellist, in fact – the suites are not for beginners. They are challenging to perform. The copies as transmitted contains only the notes. There are no indications, such as bowings, dynamics, or ornaments, of how Bach intended them to be played. (Such indications were later added by publishers and editors.) We don’t even know for sure that Bach intended them to be played on a cello. The original manuscript, in Bach’s hand, is lost. A number of copies have been found in various locations, but the most authoritative source we have is a copy in the hand of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena.

This brings me to the main theme of this post. What struck me while reading Siblin’s book – a theme among the stories interwoven in his narrative – is how tenuous the transmission of precious cultural treasures can be and how great a challenge this poses for our profession.

As Siblin recounts (pp.232-270), when Bach died in 1750, an inventory was drawn up of all his possessions, but his music was apparently not regarded as having sufficient material value to be recorded. His estate was divided among his widow, Anna Magdalena, and his nine surviving children. His second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a noted composer in his own right and in his time much more famous than his father – by then considered old-fashioned – is thought to have been the most important custodian of his father’s legacy. It appears that he assembled the bulk of the manuscripts, which may have included the manuscript of the cello suites. When C.P.E. Bach died in 1788, his widow disposed of the estate by public auction. Most of the estate was acquired by a private scholar and collector of music manuscripts, Georg Poelchau, whose son Herrmann eventually sold it to 1841 to the Prussian Royal Library (later the Prussian State Library) in Berlin. There it was deposited in the Musical Archive as the Bibliotheca Poelchaviana. When the Allies started bombing Berlin during the Second World War, many cultural treasures were removed and hidden in safer locations. Most of C.P.E. Bach’s estate was hidden in a castle at Ullersdorf, Silesia, which is now in Poland. At the end of the war, a Russian tank brigade discovered the collection and the manuscripts were taken to a music conservatory in Kiev, Ukraine, ending up in the Ukraine State Archives. Here they were discovered by musicologist and Bach scholar Christoff Wolff, who estimated in his book (Wolff 2013) how many of Bach’s compositions were lost to posterity: 80-85% of what he produced in Cöthen, more than 200 works from his Weimar years, and about two-fifths of the cantatas he wrote in Leipzig. Siblin recounts that some Bach manuscripts had been reported as being found used as wrapping paper in a cheese shop and others in a shop selling butter.

There is no extant autograph manuscript of the cello suites, but this the first page of
Bach’s manuscript of first of his six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (BWV
1101—1006). Image from Wikiwand,

Not all of Bach’s works found their way into important collections. Not all of these collections survived fires and other disasters intact. Bach’s manuscript of the cello suites was not among the material rediscovered in the Ukrainian State Archives (Siblin 2011, 265).

Treasures of documentary heritage may be tossed about in the river of time, if not forgotten and disposed of as scrap paper. With luck they may be transmitted via deceased estates, legacies to successive heirs, auction sales, book dealers, private collections, and dispersals, to library and archival collections. Although documentary heritage held in libraries and archives may yet be lost to theft, disasters, looting, and physical deterioration, these institutions are relatively safe harbours in what is often a long and tenuous chain of transmission. At best, they ensure the survival of the material, not only to repose safely, but – important – to live on as heritage should, inspiring joy and fresh creation. A timeless challenge for our profession.


Lor, Peter Johan. 2019. International and Comparative Librarianship: Concepts and Methods for Global Studies. Global Studies in Libraries and Information 4. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter/Saur.

Ranganathan, Shiyali R. 1931. The Five Laws of Library Science. Madras; London: Madras Library Association; Edward Goldston Ltd.$b99721;view=1up;seq=13.

Siblin, Eric. 2011. The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece. London: Vintage Books.

Wolff, Christoph. 2013. Johann Sebastian Bach, the Learned Musician. Upd. ed. New York: Norton.


About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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3 Responses to Reflections on librarians and time, I: Bach, anyone?

  1. Charles Townley says:

    Well said Peter. As I grow older, I see the importance of preservation increasing. I think our increasing ability to document and share using new technologies only hastens this perspective.

  2. Lara says:

    I have often reflected on the challenge that librarians face to build a collection that, not only meets the needs of the current users but for all the users in the generations to come. How do we know what should be kept, and what shouldn’t? How do we anticipate that what would be considered only as valuable as the paper it is written on now might be priceless in the future? This is a challenge that transcends the print world, considering the transience of software which is vital to present the material in a consumable format to the user. What a lovely topic for a blog reflection!

  3. Pingback: Reflections on librarians and time, I: Bach, anyone? — Peter Johan Lor – Nadia's Music Library

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