1713 Bach Aria in His Own Hand

June 10, 2005

On my way to work this morning NPR provided me with a rare treat in the form of a previously unheard and unknown aria composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. (A segment of the aria, which was aired this morning, can be heard at the NPR website.) It is the first unknown work of Bach to be found in a generation–since 1975, to be precise. At 28, Bach was an organist in the court of the Duke of Saxony-Weimar. He wrote this aria on the last two pages of a birthday pamphlet sent to the Duke by a pastor. It was found this week in a box of such birthday pamphlets, by which people tried to curry favor with various courts during that time period, by researchers who were mainly interested in the bindings of the pamphlets. This aria was to put a poem by Johann Anton Mylius to music, the first line of which contained the Duke’s motto: “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohne ihn.” (“Everything with God and nothing without him.”) The world is lucky to have found it.

Back in September 2004, I blogged here about a tragic fire that destroyed between 25,000 and 30,000 priceless, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind volumes in the Anna-Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany. I mentioned that a 1534 bible owned by Martin Luther was saved. We now know that this unknown aria was also spared the flames because the box of pamphlets, which unbeknownst to anyone also contained the Bach aria in his own hand, was sent to Leipzig for restoration just months before the fire. It was a stroke of luck, but one wonders what undiscovered treasures might have been destroyed in that fire after all.