Germany, Poland at odds over rare music manuscripts


Hundreds of original manuscripts that include symphonies written by Beethoven in his helter-skelter scrawl and operas by Mozart in his neat penmanship are the subject of one of the most politically charged cultural-heritage cases in Europe.

The extraordinary collection of 400 scores, which some musicologists say is the single most valuable batch of music manuscripts, worth perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, was once the centerpiece of the Prussian State Library in Berlin.

In addition to original works by many of the great composers from the 12th to the 19th centuries -- Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Bruckner as well as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart -- the collection includes precious volumes of 300-year-old natural history paintings, writings by Goethe and thousands of books and manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages.

Since the end of World War II, the Berlin collection, as it is generally known, has been in the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow, Poland, mostly shrouded in Cold War secrecy and off limits, until 15 years ago, to scholars.

Now, Germany wants the collection back, and high-level negotiations, which broke off two years ago between the German and Polish governments, were to resume yesterday in Berlin.

The case of the Berlin collection is one of the most unusual in the tangled web of cultural-heritage claims since the war. Unlike paintings now in Russia that were taken from Germany by the Soviet Army or art stolen from France by the Nazis, the manuscripts were not looted from Berlin by the Poles.

Indeed, the music manuscripts and other books are in Poland because of a German desire to find a safe haven for some of their most magnificent treasures.

The manuscripts, which include Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte," Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream," Brahms' "Song of Triumph" and Beethoven's eighth and ninth symphonies, were meticulously packed into crates by the Nazis when the British began to bomb Berlin in 1941 and trucked to a monastery in Grussau, near Breslau (now Wroclaw) in southern Silesia, which was then part of Germany. The treasures were stored there in a church.

At the end of the war, with the hiding place redrawn into Poland, the Polish authorities moved the hundreds of boxes out of the organ lofts of the Grussau church to the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow. The Polish Communists declared the collection to be state property and ordered the librarians to keep silent.

The existence of the manuscripts here was generally confirmed in 1977, when the Poles presented six of the most spectacular pieces -- including Beethoven's Ninth and Mozart's "Zauberflote" -- to Erich Honecker, the Communist leader of East Germany.

But the gifts were only the tip of the collection. Many Poles, who are still resentful about the willful destruction by Nazi troops of Poland's art treasures and two-thirds of its national book and manuscript collection, want to keep the Berlin collection as reparations for damage done.

Beyond that, the Poles make note of a growing sentiment in international cultural circles: that a shared heritage of mankind is more important than any national heritage.

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