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The Hirsch Collection - About Paul Hirsch

The Hirsch Papers at the British Library provide detailed records of how carefully and systematically Paul Hirsch went about building his library. All genres and all periods of European classical music are represented in his collection. 

It was his practice sometimes to buy inexpensive, imperfect copies of an item, and to exchange them for better copies at a later stage, if the opportunity arose. As Hirsch himself put it:

‘I do not regret a single one of my purchases, although I know I sometimes paid too much. What I do regret are the things I refused to buy, for many of them I have not seen again and some I despair ever to see again’.

The Hirsch papers include correspondence from bookdealers in major cities such as London, Paris, and Berlin, with whom Hirsch was in regular contact during the 1920s and ’30s. Once the National Socialists - the ‘Nazis’ - got into power in Germany, international purchases became much more complicated, and Hirsch’s quest was made more and more difficult, because there were restrictions on the foreign currency in circulation for payments in Germany. The later correspondence with booksellers and the Überwachungsstelle für Papier in Berlin, the government body responsible for controlling foreign currency, reflects this.

Hirsch the librarian

Paul Hirsch was an industrialist, who ran the family business as well as collecting music. However, these were the days when a wealthy gentleman could afford to put such extraordinary efforts, by today’s standards, into a passion such as music collecting. By the 1920s, Hirsch was presiding over a music library at his home in Frankfurt in a professional fashion. He employed a librarian, and his library was open to the public two days a week. Over the years, his visitors’ ledgers record such famous clientele as Alfred Einstein, cousin of Albert Einstein.

Hirsch's library regulations

British Library, Hirsch Papers. Copyright © The British Library Board

The library regulations displayed here state the opening hours of the library - 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays - and that visitors who wish to use the library require a letter of recommendation from a person known by Hirsch himself. Students of the Faculty of Music at Frankfurt University, or those at other conservatoires, also needed a recommendation from their tutor, which would then be accepted (or rejected) by the owner of the library at his discretion. Later, when the collection was housed at Cambridge University Library, it became a working library for many Cambridge students, before it found its final home in the British Museum Library - later the British Library.

Hirsch the musician

Hirsch (seated far left) with his string quartet.

Hirsch (seated far left) with his string quartet. British Library, Hirsch Papers. Copyright © The British Library Board

Not only was Paul Hirsch a collector of music, but he was also a gifted performer. He played the violin, as a talented amateur, giving chamber music concerts at his own home in Frankfurt as regularly as every month. The two concert programmes displayed here are from the 300th and 400th Kammermusik-Abend given on 8th December 1928 and 24th November 1933 in Paul Hirsch’s house at 29 Neue Mainzerstraße. Hirsch played first violin in his own string quartet and quintet. Whereas the concert in December 1928 was devoted to the music of Franz Schubert, marking the centenary of the composer’s death on 19th November 1828, the programme for November 1933 included the String Quintet in G Minor by W. A. Mozart, the composer who commanded most of Hirsch’s enthusiasm as a collector.

Concert programme, December 1928

British Library, Hirsch Papers. Copyright © The British Library Board

Hirsch the exile

Otto Haas was the proprietor of the Liepmannssohn antiquarian bookshop in Berlin, a Jewish business. Correspondence among the Hirsch Papers between Hirsch and the bookshop owner reveal how Haas sought Hirsch’s advice once Haas had received what he termed ‘the blue letter’. This refers to when the Nazi authorities had threatened to close down Haas’s shop for anti-Semitic reasons. Hirsch, in his reply, tried to calm Haas by stressing the traditionally excellent reputation of the bookshop. However, he emphasised that he himself in Frankfurt might also, as a Jew, have to face a similar fate. Eventually, Otto Haas managed to emigrate to Britain as well, opening his own business in Belsize Park, north London. The Hirsch papers also contain correspondence between Hirsch and Alfred Einstein, around the time when the famous Köchel edition of Mozart’s works was due for publication, when Alfred Einstein was living in Italy, and after Hirsch had emigrated to Britain. Hirsch’s correspondence with Einstein also provides rare examples among the Hirsch papers of letters in which Hirsch would reveal personal information about himself, beyond the usual business transactions of a collector. ‘Yesterday was a great day for me’, he writes, on the arrival of his music library in Cambridge. Hirsch had managed to take his library out of Germany in several train wagon loads, the Nazi authorities not having recognised its enormous value. Hirsch's wife Olga, a binding specialist and collector herself, had carefully seen to the wrapping of the books. Hirsch also comments that they cannot really complain about their new home in Cambridge, although his wife went through patches of feeling homesick.

A treatise on the theory of music

Among the many hundred theoretical works collected by Hirsch are several by the 15th-century Italian theorist Franchinus Gaffurius. The autograph manuscript of Gaffurius’s first important work, Theoriae Musicae Tractatus, probably dates from 1479. A revised version of the treatise, which was printed in 1480 with the title Theoricum Opus, is also in the Hirsch Collection.

Theoriae Musicae Tractatus

Franchinus Gaffurius, Theoriae Musicae Tractatus, c.1479. British Library, Hirsch IV.1441. Copyright © The British Library Board

 Sixteenth-century music printing

The Hirsch Collection is especially rich in early examples of music printing. Ottaviano Petrucci was among the first to print music from moveable type. In 1498 he was granted a 20-year privilege to print both polyphonic music and chant in the Venetian states; by 1510 he had produced around forty lavish volumes of sacred and secular music. Among these were five books of motets by the most highly regarded composers of the day, including Josquin, Brumel and Isaac. Hirsch owned a fine copy of the superius part of the third book of motets.

Petrucci Motetti

Motetti. C. Venice, 1504. British Library, Hirsch III.984. Copyright © The British Library Board


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