Faculty Notes: You Saved the Collection!

  September 29, 2004

Daniel Zeno '03 and Caleb Ishman '03 warm up with Professor Bennett.

As Soviet soldiers swarmed into Meiningen, Germany, in the chaotic closing days of World War II, a quick-thinking oboist from the town orchestra grabbed a handcart and shuttled to his house for safekeeping reams of 18th century manuscripts—copies of Viennese performances by baroque-era masters George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Antonio Caldara, Johann Josef Fux, Francesco Conti, Alessandro Scarlatti, and others.

It wasn’t the first or last time that an unlikely champion rescued the town’s musical treasure.

On March 23, 2004, Wabash music professor Larry Bennett received a surprising email:

“You have saved the Anton Ulrich Collection for the city of Meiningen!!!”

Professors don’t get emails like that every day. It’s one that Bennett will never forget.

In 1971, Bennett was a Fulbright Scholar finishing his dissertation and making daily border crossings through checkpoints to East Berlin when a woman in the National Library told him about the music manuscripts in Meiningen.

“She showed me these small handwritten cards describing the pieces, and I counted about 80 cantatas relevant to my research,” Bennett recalls. “When I returned to Vienna, I wrote a letter to the library at Meiningen requesting microfilm and received the most polite letter back. But they didn’t have microfilm or the equipment to produce it—the only way to see the manuscripts was to visit Meiningen.”

In those days of the divided Germany, Bennett says, he couldn’t get there.

“Meiningen was restricted to the West, and closed off to the world.”

Those doors opened a quarter-century later, Bennett’s first year as chair of the music department at Wabash. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and the singer and scholar obtained a grant to travel to the newly reunited Germany for his long-anticipated study of the Meiningen manuscripts. He was the first American to study in the Max Reger Archives in the town castle, Schloss Elisabethenburg.

“When I walked into the town, I joked with the librarian: ‘So, this city really exists? I’d thought it was just a fantasy!’”

And a music scholar’s dream.

“My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw what they had—there was so much more music there than I’d realized,” Bennett says. “These are beautiful 18th century copies—transcribed in the 1720s and 30s—of works performed in Vienna during the era of the Habsburgs. The Handel and Scarlatti pieces, and some of those by Francesco Conti, are really wonderful. All sorts of beautiful music there. And 90 of the pieces are unique to Meiningen—you won’t even find them in Vienna.”
To understand how 90 manuscripts of baroque performances found nowhere else in the world ended up   in this small German city, you must understand the enthusiasm for the arts of Meiningen’s 18th century Duke, Anton Ulrich. A patron of the arts and collector who infamously  governed the city with his brothers in the 1700s, Anton was himself a musician.

“He loved music,” Bennett says. “He was a flute player, and he kept with him a horn player and a  bassoonist.”

When a quarrel with his brothers required him to spend two years in Vienna attempting to gain his wife’s title and inheritance, Anton made the most of his time in the Western world’s music capital during an era in which the Habsburgs brought to the city and their court the finest composers of the day.

“He got to know everybody in music,” Bennett says. “He had lunch with the most famous opera singer of the day, and he met with the most famous composers.

 “For centuries, the Habsburgs commissioned and had copied all the music that glorified them—compositions for their birthdays, marriages, births, and sacred music,” Bennett says. “But pieces that were performed in public theaters, or by composers passing through, were not copied for them.”

“Anton, on the other hand, attended performances all over the city, and he obtained permission, and the services of the Habsburg scribes, to have these performances transcribed and copied for himself.

“When he returned to Meiningen with his wife’s title and children’s inheritance, he took 40 wagonloads of paintings, books, precious stones, and all these musical manuscripts,” Bennett explains. “They are beautiful copies, bound in leather, of the music he’d heard and wanted to preserve for himself.”

Upon seeing the Duke soon afterward, Johann Ludwig Bach, a  first cousin of Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote a cantata for Anton, Bennett says.

“It was entitled, “‘Now all your  worries are over!’”

But in such a contentious family, the collection was hardly secure. In the 19th century it was taken out of the castle to a local theater, where it was marked and dismissed as “old church music.” An observant librarian found the manuscripts in the early 1900s and wrote an article about how valuable they were. His summary list convinced those in charge to move the manuscripts back to the castle.

The end of World War II saw the removal by Russian soldiers of much of the Duke’s art and book collection—a fate the music manuscripts escaped, thanks to that oboist from the Meiningen orchestra who hid them in his home.

Later, the manuscripts were taken back to the theater again, Bennett says, “and at one point, the theater director said, ‘Let’s get rid of them.’” Fortunately, the director of the Meiningen Museum took them back permanently.

Until the late 1990s. After the reunification of Germany, heirs of      the Duke’s family wanted pieces of the collection for themselves and for possible sale at auction. The Meiningen Museum, fearful of having these singular manuscripts dispersed around the world and out of reach        of scholars, opposed them in court. The museum’s critical piece of evidence: an article by Professor  Larry Bennett, Wabash College, published in the Journal of the International Music Library Association, affirming the value of the manuscripts, declaring them “the largest collection of manuscripts for this period outside of Vienna,” and stating that the collection was most valuable if kept intact.

The judge decided in the museum’s favor.

“I have to tell you this good news immediately,” the museum’s music library curator, Herta Miller, emailed Bennett on March 23rd of this year. “You have saved the Anton Ulrich Collection for the city of Meiningen . . . The decisive factor was your article alone . . . .

“Political officials have praised the decision as a day of joy for Meiningen.”

The Meiningen Collection continues to be fruitful ground for Bennett’s research. He’s completed  an article about cantatas from the collection that were performed in palaces during that era, and one of   the cantatas he brought back was performed for a Wabash audience in 2002 by College vocal instructor Mitzi Westra. He’s currently writing about and promoting another manuscript in the collection, the first full-length German opera ever performed in Vienna, with music written by Ignaz Holzbauer.

But it’s the preservation of the collection that kindles the most personal satisfaction in the Wabash professor. Bennett still smiles when he recalls the email from Herta Miller.

“The matter is finally settled: the judge decided that this collection is a treasure for the city,” Bennett says.  “It will remain in Schloss Elisabethenburg, in the Meiningen Museum, for scholars from around the world to study. And the people of Meiningen, who have had so much taken from them, will keep this part  of their heritage.

“To get a note like that is certainly a highlight of my career,” Bennett says. “I don’t think it can get much better.”