By SARAH JAQUAY
“He [Johann Sebastian Bach] had a high opinion of his music, but he’d be surprised there’s SO much writing about him–so many books analyzing his music,” notes Paul Cary, conservatory librarian at the Riemenschneider Bach Institute (RBI) located at Baldwin Wallace University’s (BW’s) Conservatory. Cary was commenting on how Bach might react if he rose from the dead and visited RBI’s premiere collection today.
The Riemenschneider Bach Institute is one of Northeast Ohio’s little-known gems that sounds like it might be available only to scholars. Nothing could be further from the truth. And the people who work there, teach at the Conservatory and act as stewards of this amazing collection in Berea want “Bach buffs” to know that as RBI marks its 50th anniversary. Sadly, this year’s BW Bach Festival (which would have been the 88th, and) which is one the oldest collegiate Bach festivals in North America, was cancelled due to COVID-19. There was special programming planned to celebrate RBI’s golden anniversary, including the debut of a national competition commissioning a new work “inspired by Bach.” The winner of this competition, James Primosch, is a composer and professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s a native Clevelander who’s having a remarkable 2020. Primosch recently received the prestigious Virgil Thomson Award for Vocal Music given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. (See below for more on this notable former local who’s also a past recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize for Music.)
The Institute is housed in a series of rooms in BW’s Conservatory complex in the Boesel Musical Arts Center. When visitors enter, they see a timeline exhibit highlighting the RBI’s and Bach Festival’s interesting history.
The founder of BW’s Conservatory was Albert Riemenschneider. According to his great-grandson, Jay Riemenschneider, Albert and his wife were traveling through Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the early 1930s and attended a Bach Festival there.
Albert decided BW’s Conservatory should have its own and hosted its first Bach Festival in 1933. What a welcome respite that must have been in the nadir of the Great Depression!
Over the decades Albert amassed an outstanding collection of Bach, Beethoven and many others. After Albert died, his widow Selma donated his library to BW and it became the foundation for the Institute. The goal of making RBI accessible and user-friendly has evolved ever since.
Why would Bach lovers want to see this collection? They would be thrilled to discover a set of handwritten parts for a cantata written in Leipzig in 1729—”Some by J.S. himself!” says Cary. The cantata is “I Love the Almighty with All My Being,” BWV 174. Christina Fuhrman, professor of music and editor of “Bach: Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute” (Bach Journal) says, “The collection contains rare first editions–especially Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier.’” Clavier was a generic term for keyboard and this composition is two sets of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys for solo keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord, clavichord and organ. RBI also has two fortepianos, one is an original dating from 1792 and the other is a reproduction “people can actually play” says Cary.
If the RBI has a pied piper attracting more student and community engagement, it might be Danielle Kuntz, assistant professor of music history and RBI Scholar-in-Residence.
One of her academic roles is to ensure BW (and other) students have opportunities to interact and use the Institute’s resources. Kuntz and others have remarked on how unusual (and exciting) it is for undergraduates to have access to such extraordinary primary sources. It’s more common for graduate students and professional scholars. Kuntz explains the Conservatory encourages students to use the RBI in a number of ways, particularly via its RBI Scholars program. This program allows students to develop research projects under the supervision of a faculty mentor and present their work at the Bach Festival. “The big news for our 50th anniversary is that we’ve expanded the program from two students annually to five.” The program is completely funded by private donations.
The Institute’s impressive collection is not limited to Bach. Fuhrman says RBI has Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” with his actual notes. The RBI attracts professional scholars from around the world through its Martha Goldsworthy Arnold (MGA) Fellowship program. According to the website, this fellowship is for full-time residential research in the RBI collections. Fellowships range from one to four weeks and fellows are encouraged to present their work to faculty and students; plus, depending on suitability, to submit it for publication to the Bach Journal. Cary and Fuhrman mentioned renowned Bach scholar Yo Tomita as an MGA Fellow. He’s a professor on the faculty of Queen’s University in Belfast who came to RBI “to study our Well-Tempered Clavier collection because it’s one of the best in the world,” notes Cary.
Fans of BW’s Bach Festival needn’t be too dismayed to have missed the 88th one and its associated programming marking the RBI’s 50th anniversary. Some of the instrumental performances are available online. (See below for links.) Just as Bach’s music comforted Northeast Ohioans during the worst year of the Great Depression (think 1933’s banking “holiday”), the RBI reminds us: This too shall pass, but great music endures.
For more information see: https://www.bw.edu/libraries/riemenschneider-bach-institute/ or contact Paul Cary at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (440) 826-8074.
For Bach Festival performances online, see: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLgJlKob7h1cONgfxesBNeR_Lk2YW-kjoN and https://www.facebook.com/BaldwinWallaceConservatory/