May 9, 2014 6:25 pm

Composer manuscripts come on the market

The Second Symphony (1907), possibly ‘the last significant Rachmaninov manuscript to come on the market’

The Second Symphony (1907), possibly ‘the last significant Rachmaninov manuscript to come on the market’

The notes written across the barlines are remarkably neat and controlled – the opposite of the swirling emotions they describe in performance. The only signs of disorder are a few finger-smudges, a handful of corrections in pink crayon, some tidy crossings-out and occasional traces of damp at the edge of the paper.

There, on a table in front of me, is the only surviving autograph manuscript of one of my favourite symphonies, Rachmaninov’s Second. I am terrified to pick it up: what if I accidentally tear a page or splutter over it? But finally I do pick it up – and as my fingers leaf through the ultra-romantic slow movement, I imagine Rachmaninov (pictured) doing the same with these very pages while conducting the first performance at St Petersburg in 1908.

The reason for my nervousness is that the treasure held by my sweaty hands has an estimated value of between £1m and £1.5m – a figure likely to be exceeded when the manuscript comes up for auction at Sotheby’s in London on May 20. It may well be the last significant Rachmaninov manuscript ever to come on the market. Virtually every other score he left in Russia when fleeing the 1917 revolution is in Moscow’s Glinka Museum of Musical Culture, and most of what he wrote in exile is similarly preserved.

Thanks to their rarity, composer manuscripts command increasingly high prices. Given that music is the one truly international language, it is no surprise to find Chinese and Japanese buyers now bidding against European and American collectors – something that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Sergei Rachmaninov in the early 1900s©Getty

The composer in the early 1900s

Increased competition has, in turn, brought more things on to the market, often because families see an opportunity to realise the value of heirlooms that mean less to them than to their original owners. All sorts of musical exotica have emerged from the vaults for Sotheby’s latest sale, including fragments of Verdi (with estimates between £1,500 and £15,000), a letter by Brahms (£4,000-£6,000) and even a first-edition print copy of Wagner’s Parsifal marked up in pencil by Debussy (£10,000-£15,000).

Next to rarity, the key factor determining value is the reputation of the composer and, in the case of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, its status as a core repertoire work. The last time a manuscript as important as this came on the market was in 1987, when nine Mozart symphonies were sold as a single lot for £2.35m.

Based on recent precedent, the value of a significant autograph score can rise by roughly 10 per cent a year, making it a decent investment. “But I know very few people who think like that,” says Simon Maguire, Sotheby’s specialist in music manuscripts, suggesting other, less calculating factors may be involved. “You can’t generalise, because the market is so specialised. You only need two or three Mozart collectors to bid against each other for the price to go much higher.”

Maguire cites a cadenza for Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, which went under the hammer for £92,000 in 2007 and was re-sold only five years later for £340,000. The autograph for the complete work is missing, so even a fragment – amounting in this case to half a single leaf of paper – can have an extraordinary value. “That’s an exceptional case,” adds Maguire, “but it means the state of the market is pretty strong.”

Sotheby’s upcoming auction includes an unfinished Mozart Kyrie in C, probably written when he was 16, which is expected to sell for up to £500,000 – maybe more. As anyone can hear on YouTube, it is a sublime piece of music. The fact that it cuts off after two-and-a-quarter minutes, as if the composer had been distracted or lost interest, is immaterial.

In this case, sentiment may influence the price. In 1939 the manuscript travelled by sea to South America in the luggage of a German Jewish musician who had bought it as a substitute for hard currency when fleeing Munich. He had separated it from its title-wrapper, which went with the family furniture on a separate ship that was torpedoed and sunk.

The market in musical manuscripts dates from the early 19th century, when people began collecting sketch leaves of Beethoven, the dominant musical figure of the time. Very little survives from before 1800 – not a single note by baroque composers such as Monteverdi, Lully or Alessandro Scarlatti. The main exceptions are Bach, whose manuscripts were passed down through his extensive family, and Handel, whose scores were preserved by his amanuensis after his death and now sit in the British Museum – the biggest single composer collection from almost any era.

Despite the booming market for composer manuscripts, there is no guarantee they will rise in value. In the 1980s, letters written by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) went for as much as £4,000 apiece, but would now fetch barely a tenth – a drop that seems at odds with his standing in the musical world.

While manuscripts by “blue-chip” composers command high prices, a market also exists for autograph scores of living or recently deceased composers. In 2000, when an early choral and instrumental work by Peter Maxwell Davies came up for sale, it went for more than he had been paid to write it. Two years ago, when Sotheby’s auctioned a complete draft score of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, it was snapped up by a foreign buyer for £211,250 – a hefty price for a composer who had died within living memory.

On that occasion, the government imposed an export ban, giving the British Library time to match the sale price. Such a ban is unlikely in the case of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. “It’s not something of British provenance – that’s the crucial thing,” says Stephen Roe, Sotheby’s worldwide head of books and manuscripts, referring to the so-called “Waverley criteria” that govern whether works of art should be preserved for the nation.

Roe knows a thing or two about musical manuscripts: it was he who catalogued the autograph draft of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps for Sotheby’s in 1982, when it sold for £330,000 – at that time a world record price for a musical manuscript. He says “it gives us a huge kick” when a significant score arrives out of the blue, triggering a burst of study and research to determine its authenticity, provenance and value.

“When something is printed, you lose all the emphases you see in a manuscript,” he confides, relieving me of the Rachmaninov score and pointing out some of its idiosyncracies. Here are crossings-out in pencil – probably spur-of-the-moment decisions made on the rostrum at first hearing. Here “poco meno mosso” is substituted by a specific metronome marking, evidence of a change of mind about tempo.

Several more such changes were evidently intended by the composer as instructions for the copyist – but not half as many as later found their way into the published version, making this autograph score a valuable source of insight into Rachmaninov’s original intentions and thought-processes.

The missing first four pages and the last are replaced by printed pages of identical size. Otherwise, apart from finger-marks left by composer and copyist, “it’s in pretty good nick,” purrs Roe. “This is going to be one of our big ones.”

What is remarkable about this “find” is that it was unknown to scholars for most of the past century, only surfacing at auction a decade ago. That resulted in an ownership dispute, later resolved, whereupon it was sold privately and lodged in the British Library.

“We don’t know in whose hands it’s going to end up,” says Roe, “but the one person in whose hands we can be certain it has been is Rachmaninov’s.”

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