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The Hirsch Collection

Paul Hirsch's music collection in Frankfurt am Main, Germany was one of the finest private libraries of its kind, comprising 18,000 items.

In 1946, after having previously been housed within Cambridge University Library for a short period, it was finally acquired by the British Museum, and it now constitutes one of the most outstanding collections of printed music and literature and archives relating to music held within the British Library.

Paul Hirsch was born in Frankfurt on 24 February 1881, the son of a wealthy Frankfurt industrialist. He first began collecting music with his acquisition in 1897 of a Peters Edition copy of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthäuspassion - the St. Matthew Passion - which would become the foundation purchase of a collection that would in time encompass some 18,000 items.

Hirsch's Bookplate

Hirsch's Bookplate © The British Library Board


Hirsch was an accomplished musician (he played the violin and viola to a high standard) and an exceptionally cultivated man, and well understood the needs of both the performer and the musicologist. In collecting, he was guided by principles of scholarly importance, the physical condition and preservation of the items, their rarity, typography, binding, and any special features such as illustration.

In the early years of his collection, Hirsch’s acquisitions were dominated by editions of and scholarly works relating to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; in 1906, he was able to publish his own catalogue of Mozart items, the Katalog einer Mozart Bibliothek. Later, Beethoven and Schubert would be represented in almost equal strength, and the library would hold a copy of almost every major opera published in full score. Paul Hirsch published a four-volume catalogue to his own collection, detailing the four main areas of the collection: theoretical works; opera; miscellaneous; and early editions of Mozart along with first editions of Beethoven and Schubert.

From 1909 onwards, his Music Library in the Neue Mainzerstraße was open to the public for two afternoons per week, with Dr. Kathi Meyer, whom Hirsch had appointed, as its librarian. Internationally, the collection was recognised as being an outstanding one, with many famous visitors throughout the musical world flocking to the library. On a warm and sunny October afternoon in 1920, Hirsch held an open day for visitors, complete with some of the rarest items, hand-picked, on display, and a small catalogue to describe them. One of the guests, Ludwig Sternaux, lovingly and with admiration called the collection the greatest private library he knew, located within one of the best parts of Frankfurt.

However, political circumstances were of course to change in Germany, and increasingly it became more and more difficult for Hirsch, who had maintained contacts with booksellers all over Europe via his correspondence and regular travels, to maintain his passion as a collector. His correspondence after 1933 reflects the pressures to which Hirsch found himself exposed, due to regulations which the Nazi authorities were imposing upon those wanting to obtain foreign currencies and purchases. More acutely, Hirsch, as a Jewish citizen in Germany, must have felt his business, and indeed his and his family’s lives, to be under threat. His skills as a collector have already been described; they become even more remarkable when we consider the enthusiasm he maintained amid the political events of those times.

Paul Hirsch had visited England regularly and he knew E.J. Dent, who was Professor of Music at Cambridge (1926 to 1941). It was, in part, thanks to Dent’s influence that Hirsch and his family managed to find a new home in Cambridge in 1936, and also that the music collection, which miraculously Hirsch had been able to bring with him, did so as well.

In 1946, Hirsch sold his collection to the British Museum for £120,000. This sum was largely raised by special grants from the Treasury and from the Pilgrim Trust, after delicate negotiations in which again Professor Dent had played an important part.

Paul Hirsch died in Cambridge on 23 November 1951, having secured for the British Library one of its finest ever acquisitions.

About Paul Hirsch

  • Hirsch the collector
  • Hirsch the librarian
  • Hirsch the musician
  • Hirsch the exile
  • A treatise on the theory of music
  • Sixteenth-century music printing

About the collections

  • Balet comique de la Royne
  • An early Bach edition
  • Musical playing cards
  • A Mozart library
  • Hirsch and Goethe
  • Catalogues and further reading


Music Collections
The British Library
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United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7772
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7751

E-mail: Ask the Music Reference Team