Memory of the World

The Brahms Collection in the Musikverein Archive

It was Johannes Brahms’ wish that his collection of manuscripts, books and correspondence should become part of the archive of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. He was clear about his reasons for this. Today, the Brahms collection in the Musikverein archive has become an irreplaceable part of “human heritage”, recognized by UNESCO as a “Memory of the World”. 

Johannes Brahms was a collector: his estate encompassed tin figurines, books and manuscripts, particularly music manuscripts from his older composer colleagues. He knew from personal experience just how much there was to learn about the personality of a composer in general and the creative process relating to a particular work from a manuscript written in the composer’s own hand. For this reason, he prized working manuscripts more than ‘fair copies’, as corrections made during the writing process provide insights into the struggle to craft the final form of a composition. What emerged from sketches and draft compositions? Why did fragments remain unfinished? How did complete scores come into being? It was questions such as these that gave him a fascination for the manuscripts of other composers. And because he knew how many answers one might find in manuscripts, he also saw his own manuscripts as bearing profound witness to his own creative existence. He chose where possible to give publishers transcribed copies, while he made presents to close friends of transcribed manuscripts of his own works. Meanwhile, all the manuscripts of his own works that he retained were bequeathed in his will to the archive of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, for which his friend Eusebius Mandyczewski was given responsibility as curator of the estate. During his lifetime, Brahms had also entrusted Mandyczewski with some pieces intended for the archive. 

Collecting for study

Thus for Brahms, the collation of his own testaments to creative endeavour had already become a collection in themselves, not only of music manuscripts, but also those print versions used by the composer during performances and into which he later added corrections and adaptations. He also collected musical first editions – particularly those of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. In the case of Haydn, to whom so many works were wrongly attributed and whose own handwritten transcriptions had in so many cases been lost, questions about authenticity fascinated him, which we are able to identify through the Haydn memorabilia among his collection: What is really from the composer and what was  - where identifiable as such – merely attributed to him? 

In Brahms’ collection of books we find musical handbooks, bibliophile editions, very many literary works for his reading pleasure or that struck a chord with him. His annotated Baedeker travel guides are as important a part of his collection as the bible editions in which he had marked text passages for his “German Requiem”. 

Brahms had carefully retained and stored all the correspondence addressed to him. Some correspondents expressed a wish after his death to recover the letters, as a result of which these items are now either at disparate locations or have been lost. The complete sets of correspondence that do remain, however, provide a fascinating insight into composition projects, the work of Brahms as a composer, conductor and pianist, into his social contacts, his daily life and into many of his business and financial dealings. 

Innovative and exemplary

The collection that found its way into the archive of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde after Brahms’ death (and after 15 years of legal and judicial wrangling over the details of his will), encompassed all that he had collected for himself and also from and about himself – in other words, a Brahms collection in more than one sense. There were already composers before him who had collected books or artworks; all these collections have been fragmented and lost. There had been no composers before him, however, who had so consistently collected testaments to his own personality and creative oeuvre. As such, the Brahms estate (which one should in fact define as the collections curated by Brahms) is in all respects both innovative and exemplary. 

It is for this reason that the Brahms collection was recognised and registered by Unesco in 2005  as a documentary “heritage of humanity”. The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna saw this inherited collection as a responsibility and has continued to build a still more comprehensive Brahms collection on this basis, which is without parallel today. The organisation has set itself the task of expanding the collection to include all those items that Brahms himself had been unable to collect, such as musical manuscripts that he had allowed to leave his possession and letters that combine with his own collated correspondence to provide a complete picture. To achieve this goal, the institution has striven to inspire bequests and to undertake acquisitions, thus proving equally exemplary and forward-thinking in its approach. 

“… for the benefit of all humanity”

Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) confers two types of protection upon items of great historical value. The first of these confers the title “world heritage”, upon sites that, because of their unique qualities, authenticity and integrity, are seen as being of global importance and are proposed as such by the countries in which they are situated. The title refers to the provisions of the 1972 Convention on World Heritage, ratified by 190 states and regions. The second of these forms of recognition is given the title “Memory of the World” for the “conservation of the documentary heritage of humanity”, in other words, for written items that respectively for their form “represent the collective memory of humanity in the different countries of our world”. Acceptance into the world heritage register or into that of the “Memory of the World” does not, however, imply any form of financial support and instead may be understood as formalising recognition, distinction and responsibility. 

At a 2005 meeting of the Advisory Committee of the Memory of the World Programme in Lijang (People’s Republic of China) it was decided that the Brahms collection held by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna should be included in the “Memory of the World” register. The decision of 29 July 2005 states: “The inclusion of this documentary heritage in the Memory of the World Register reflects its exceptional value and signifies that it should be protected for the benefit of all humanity.”

Joie Springer (Information Society Division, Unesco Paris) presented the certificate recording this decision at a celebratory event in the Brahms Saal in the Musikverein building on 21 February 2006.

Recognition and Incentive 

Inclusion in the “Memory of the World” register gave the Brahms collection of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna a reputation to uphold that extended far beyond the world of music. It is not only valued as a collection of items, but is also recognised internationally and referred to as a model for the handling of exceptional written documents. To illustrate the global impact and recognition of this collection, one need only mention its presence at the International Archival Culture Exhibition 2010 in Seoul, South Korea. Inclusion in the “Memory of the World” register is not only recognition of the uniqueness of the collection but it also functions as a continual incentive to respond appropriately and imaginatively to the multiplicitous requirements of the collection.

Invaluable for research 

To whom is the Brahms collection in the archive of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna of value? Who makes use of it and for what purposes? First and foremost, the Brahms collection is invaluable for all those who engage with Brahms as performers or researchers. One may consult Brahms, so to speak, primarily through his own handwritten manuscripts and documents. This forms the basis for the Neue Brahms edition initiated and co-published by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Brahms’ correspondence is, however, also the subject of historical research; when he writes of an express train being so loud during a journey that conversations cannot be heard, this is not so much information about the person as about the times in which he lived. 

The collection is significant for the biographers of his correspondence partners, among them many major figures of cultural history. His library is also important for many who are not primarily focusing upon Brahms himself. Since the Brahms collection includes countless original handwritten manuscripts and first editions from other composers, it is altogether an invaluable research source for the music of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The double page upon the front of which Beethoven wrote his song “Ich liebe Dich” and upon the back of which Schubert wrote the movement of a piano sonata is a unique musical treasure. Whether it be Beethoven’s sketches for the Ninth symphony, Haydn’s string quartets op. 20, Mozart’s great G minor symphony, Schumann’s Fourth symphony in its first draft, or countless other works by Schumann and Schubert – Brahms gained great pleasure from these original handwritten manuscripts (and many more besides). For this reason, they all form part of the Brahms collection and are inextricably linked to him. This and many other aspects make the Brahms collection an irreplaceable “Memory of the World”.

Prof. Dr. Dr.h.c. Otto Biba

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