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Albi Rosenthal

Doyen of music booksellers and collector of Mozart and Nietzsche

Tuesday 10 August 2004 00:00 BST

Albrecht Gabriel Rosenthal, music scholar and bookseller: born Munich 5 October 1914; married 1947 Maud Levy (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Oxford 3 August 2004.

He had a head that any Roman emperor might have envied, his integrity was far above the highest imperial standard, and the history of European music owes him a debt as far beyond repayment.

Almost 90 years ago, when Albi Rosenthal was born in Munich, some, but not all, of his achievements might have been predicted, but no one could have guessed how they would come about. If the First World War had just begun, it made little impact on the Rosenthal family, whose Jewish origins were then no bar to advancement in Bavaria. Three years earlier his grandfather Jacques had opened his temple of art at 47 Briennerstrasse, an Italianate building constructed under the watchful eye of Albi's father Erwin Rosenthal, already a distinguished art historian. Albi's mother, Margherita, was the daughter of Leo Olschki, the German founder of another dynasty of booksellers in Italy.

Growing up in Munich after the war, attending the local Gymnasium, the eldest of Erwin's three sons was already set in the direction of music. It had long been a Rosenthal interest (in 1885 the firm lent 16 of the 196 exhibits of "Historic Music" at the Albert Hall), but to Albi it was never just stock in trade, rather the staple of life. For his seventh birthday, he asked for and got his first violin. For his 21st, his mother gave him a Mozart letter.

He called his violin "my best friend" (it was under his bed when he died) and it was and remained his passport. In the 1990s a customs officer stopped him in the green channel and asked what he had been playing. Puzzled, he said, "Mozart and Beethoven sonatas". "Last Sunday I played Mozart's Kegelstadt Trio," said the customs officer.

Albi Rosenthal was not, could not be, unaware of the strains imposed by the financial collapse of the new republic and the rise of National Socialism. His father, who foresaw what would happen with absolute clarity, had already begun to reduce the business and transfer abroad, first what he could of its assets, and then his family. On 1 April 1933, the Rosenthal firm was to open an exhibition of the medieval manuscripts of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, about to be sold by Sotheby's in London. The same day the boycott of "non-Aryan" firms began, and a storm-trooper barred Rosenthal's main entrance. All civilised Munich came in protest, entering by the back door. Five months later, Albi moved to London.

His father paved the way for him, with introductions to A.M. Hind and Robin Flower, Keeper of Prints and Drawings and Deputy Keeper of Manuscripts respectively at the British Museum. Flower provided a home and access (he was nominally under age) to medieval manuscripts. Next spring, his father came to London and took him to see Fritz Saxl, head of the recently arrived Warburg Institute, also a refugee from Germany. Could Saxl find him a job? "He can start tomorrow." Albi was appalled to be thus thrown in, but "you'll swim", said his father, and he did. He worked with Rudolf Wittkower for three and a half years, and published his first article, on Dürer's Traum, in The Burlington Magazine.

But, as he was a Rosenthal, the book trade was never far off. In 1935, E.P. Goldschmidt, already a distinguished member of the trade in London, took him to the United States; they played chess on the voyage, Goldschmidt usually winning. In New York, he was welcomed by Lathrop Harper, doyen of booksellers there, brushed off by the formidable Dr A.S.W. Rosenbach, and given the run of the Pierpont Morgan Library by its equally formidable librarian, Belle da Costa Greene - "Haven't you gone to lunch?" she would say, but he could not be distracted from the manuscripts.

Back in London, he started the firm of A. Rosenthal Ltd in 1936. His mother thought that Crewe House would make suitable premises, and fortuitously found a flat for him next door in Curzon Street. He was too busy at the Warburg for it to be much more than a name, but in 1939 he issued his first catalogue of 100 manuscripts and printed books as Secular Thought in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

He also met Maud Levy, daughter of the great editor of Nietzsche, Oscar Levy. He, self-exiled from Germany, had loyally supported Britain in the First World War, only to be exiled again from his adopted country in 1921. This caused a national scandal, and, after living in France between the wars, he had returned to live in Oxford.

So, when A. Rosenthal was bombed out of Curzon Street in November 1940 (his friendly neighbours, Maggs Brothers, helped him rescue his stock), it was to Oxford that he went. He worked with Maurice Ettinghausen, formerly head of Maggs' Paris branch, and they began to develop an export business, mainly to America. He also frequented the Bodleian Library, and entered into the musical life of Oxford. Jack Westrup became a close friend, and his enthusiasm for early music grew (cemented in a legendary performance of Monteverdi's Lamento di Arianna in 1950). Monteverdi joined Mozart, his first love; the first A. Rosenthal music catalogue had been published, meanwhile, in 1948.

There were lighter moments. Once he packed Westrup and the tiny but infinitely distinguished Neapolitan bookseller Tammaro de Marinis into his Morris Minor, and drove them to see Lord Leicester's manuscripts at Holkham. On the way back, they were stopped by the police, looking out for dangerous fugitives. "How do you know we're not them?" asked Albi Rosenthal. "They're supposed to be good-looking," said the policeman. He was delighted with this unexpected boutade.

Music was not the only staple of his business. Like many of his compatriots, notably Henry Zeitlinger and Ernst Weil, he pioneered interest in the history of philosophy and science. Inspired by Oscar Levy, now his father-in-law, he built up a collection of the letters of Nietzsche (taboo in Germany after the Second World War). He also found (prompted by Ettinghausen) the legendary "La Clayette Manuscript", lost since the 18th century but still in the possession of its owner, the Marquis de Noblet. It proved to be a 13th-century French collection of songs and rondeaux, with 44 motets in musical notation, which with some difficulty and a special subvention from the French prime minister, Antoine Pinay, he managed to sell to the Bibliothèque Nationale (the Marquis demanded cash, taking it away in the same newspaper he had used to wrap the book).

In 1951, he was asked to appraise the great collection of the French pianist Alfred Cortot, at Lausanne. This in turn led to a closer relationship with Otto Haas, owner since 1903 of the greatest of all music bookshops, founded by Leo Liepmannssohn in 1866. This took him often to Haas's premises in Belsize Park Gardens, north London, and shortly before his death in 1955 Rosenthal bought the business. From now on his own and Haas's businesses, though trading separately, became virtually one. He himself moved constantly between the two, when he was not, as often, travelling abroad.

During the second half of the 20th century, musicology, still a minority interest when the Second World War ended, grew to become a major academic industry. In this process Rosenthal's role can hardly be underestimated. He won the confidence and affection of the librarians and collectors everywhere. Paul Hirsch and the Comtesse de Chambure (whose intervention in the sale of the La Clayette Manuscript was crucial) were among the latter. He added notably to the Schumann collection at Zwickau and to the Brahms Institut at Lübeck.

At Berlin, for which he found Mendelssohn material, he knew well the successive heads of the music section of the Staatsbibliothek, Rudolf Elvers and Helmut Hell. When the Kulturstiftung der Länder was set up, he established equally happy relations with its first director, Klaus Maurice. His many services to the Mozarteum Salzburg were honoured with the award of its Golden Pin. At the British Library he formed close and longstanding relations with Alec Hyatt King, O.W. (Tim) Neighbour and Hugh Cobbe, bidding for the library at auction, acting for it in appraising the estate of Benjamin Britten and enriching its holdings through his involvement with the Tippett Foundation.

He had as many friends among the great libraries and universities in the US, with whom he built up the same special relationship. In 1986, when Paul Sacher established a foundation for 20th-century music in Basle, commissioning new works and collecting manuscripts, Rosenthal became a trustee, providing Webern manuscripts and the Stravinsky archive - the latter negotiated with three American law firms, which tried Rosenthal's diplomacy to its limit. "Mr Rosenthal," said a representative of the third and toughest of them, "I like you. You are a man of patience." His generosity to his clients was equalled by his sympathy to young booksellers, to whom he gave discounts by way of practical encouragement.

But, first and last, it was to Oxford that his loyalty was given. He was delighted to become President of the Oxford University Orchestra, after many decades among the first violins, and even more by the honorary MA awarded to him in 1979. On his 80th birthday, he gave the Bodleian (on whose Council he sat for many years) the collection he built up over 60 years of the lifetime editions of Mozart; three years earlier he had mounted a memorable exhibition based on them. With the Oxford scholar Alan Tyson he published Mozart's Thematic Catalogue (1990), a full facsimile of the "Mozart Verzeichnis", insisting on the inclusion of the poignant blank leaves, left for the works he did not live to write. His own Obiter Scripta was published in 2000 and he received other Festschriften in 1984, 1989 and 1994.

Only last month, Rosenthal travelled to Sils-Maria in the Engadine, where Nietzsche lived in 1881-88, to inaugurate the new extension to the Nietzsche-Haus, where the Rosenthal collection of Nietzche manuscripts and editions has now been joined by the library and archive of Oscar Levy. This brought another long interest full circle.

In 1955, when Otto Haas died, Rosenthal gave a memorable address in words that can now be as aptly applied to himself. He singled out four characteristics, charm, memory, integrity and modesty, adding that the last would have preferred to suppress mention of the first three. Reticence, in Albi Rosenthal, was the essence of integrity. In everything, his goodness of heart was transparent. He did not particularly care for the violence and dissonance of modern music, preferring the harmonious completion of a consistent musical invention. His life was like such a perfect piece of music.

Nicolas Barker

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