The story of Krakow’s Beethoven manuscripts begins before WW II in Berlin. At that time, the Prussian State Library in Berlin held the world’s greatest collection of original autograph music manuscripts, including those of the most important works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and many other great composers. In 1941, after Allied bombs started to fall on Berlin, the library began divide up its collections and evacuate parts to various mines, monasteries, and castles in safer parts of Germany. Boxes of manuscripts by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn and others were sent to Lower Silesia, and ultimately hidden at a Benedictine abbey in Grüssau. As the war progressed, the abbey escaped bombing by the Allied powers and destruction by the Soviet forces that invaded Silesia towards the end of the war.
In July 1945, after the end of fighting in Europe, a group of Polish librarians and museum officers were engaged in a search for looted Polish cultural treasures in areas abandoned by the Germans. At Grüssau, the few remaining monks at the abbey informed them about the musical treasure hidden there. The monks were aware that Soviet soldiers stationed nearby were pilfering anything of value, and they thought the manuscripts would be safer in Polish hands.
In the summer of 1945, U.S. President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met in Potsdam, Germany, to negotiate terms for the settlement of the war in Europe. At the Potsdam Conference, Poland’s western boundary was redrawn to the west of its pre-war location. As a result, Lower Silesia became part of Poland. (One repercussion of this change was that German towns in the area acquired new Polish names, to the great confusion of anyone trying to understand local history and geography. Thus, Grüssau, Germany became Krzeszów, Poland.)
In 1946, the manuscripts were quietly transferred from the abbey at Krzeszów to Krakow. They were held in secret and eventually deposited in the Jagiellonian University Library . My recent visit to Poland was to study Beethoven’s op. 74 string quartet, known as “the Harp.” The autograph score of the Harp was one of the manuscripts brought to Krakow. Other Beethoven manuscripts in the group included portions or complete scores of the 7th, 8th and 9th Symphonies, several of the late string quartets, and sketchbooks.
Even after the Jagiellonian Library acquired the manuscripts, few inside Poland (and no one outside) knew of their existence and whereabouts. The custodians kept them in secret for decades because of mistrust of the Soviet Union, which essentially controlled Poland’s government until 1989, and Poland’s inability to obtain cultural reparations and appropriate compensation from the Soviet Union and East Germany for wartime cultural losses.
News of the manuscripts’ existence reached the outside world through a Polish musicologist in the late 1960s. Even so, the Polish government did not acknowledge possession of the manuscripts until 1977. In that year, Poland signed a treaty of friendship with East Germany and returned seven scores to Berlin (including Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Mozart’s The Magic Flute). Although the transfer was characterized as a goodwill gesture, it may have actually been war reparations forced on Poland by East Germany.
Since then, there have been a series of negotiations between Poland and East Germany, and later unified Germany, about the return of the rest of the music manuscripts to Berlin. However, Poland has refused to act without further repatriation of Polish cultural objects and adequate reparations for Polish cultural losses during the war. The last negotiations took place in 2000. The manuscripts remain in Krakow, and the old wartime disputes persist.
Włodzimierz Kalicki, “Manuscripts found in the Jagiellonian.” Gazeta Wyborcza (Warsaw, Poland), March 30, 2010 (translation by Gazeta Wyborcza).
Marek Sroka, “The Music Collection of the Former Prussian State Library at the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków, Poland: Past, Present, and Future Developments,” Library Trends 55. no. 3 (Winter 2007) (“Libraries in Times of War, Revolutions, and Social Change,” edited by W. Boyd Rayward and Christine Jenkins), pp 651-664.