Wednesday, January 15, 2014

William H. Scheide (cont.)

William Scheide in his library a few years ago

On Monday I attended a rather unusual birthday luncheon.  We were marking the centenary of the philanthropist William (Bill) Scheide.  Mr. Scheide, a Princeton graduate of the class of 1936 (the year of my birth, as it happens), was actually born on January 6, 1914; but it will require several weeks of celebration by numerous and diverse constituencies of admirers to attempt justice to the man’s wide-ranging interests and benevolences.  This luncheon paid homage to two of the most important of Scheide’s roles: as musicologist and as bibliophile.
The Scheide Library Reading Room

            Bill Scheide is eminent as an expert in J. S. Bach.  He has an important collection of early musical manuscripts, and he played a crucial part in reviving the performance of Bach’s choral music by founding, in 1946, the Bach Aria Group.   It is now hard to believe that such an indispensable body of music could fall into practical desuetude, but that is what was happening in America in the first half of the twentieth century, and Mr. Scheide was prominent among its rescuers.  At Monday’s lunch the “musical Scheide” was recognized in some typically elegant remarks by Scott Burnham, the Scheide Professor of Music, and with a brief but spectacular interlude by the Princeton Glee Club.

Chancellor Green Hall

            The Glee Club was exploiting the architecture of the luncheon’s remarkable venue: the rotunda of Chancellor Green Hall, a magnificent neo-Gothic building dating from the early 1870s and the presidency of James McCosh.   Most of the great educational institutions of our country are among other things museums of visionary philanthropy.  The greatest local institutional benefactor of that age was a man named John C. Green, and there are Green Thises and Green Thats scattered over the Princeton campus.  John Green was too busy making money to go to college himself, but he donated a magnificent pseudo-ecclesiastical library in honor of his distinguished brother, Henry W. Green of the class of 1820, the Chancellor of the State of New Jersey and a trustee of the University.  For the past several years at Reunions the Glee Club, deployed in a large circle atop the well of the rotunda, have dazzled audiences with their rendition of the Tallis forty-part motet.  I think that Monday may have been their first time to sing “Happy Birthday” in circular formation.

            The building that was once large enough to serve as a college library could not today house an adequate reference room for a research institution; but it was the perfect place to honor Bill Scheide in his role as bibliophile and proprietor of one of the world’s greatest private collections of rare books and manuscripts.  And of course it is through the Scheide Library, now housed within the main Firestone building and adjacent to Princeton’s own superb Special Collections, that I and many other scholars have come to know the man.  The Scheide Library is the work of three generations of dedicated and energetic book-lovers.  It was founded by Mr. Scheide’s grandfather, then greatly strengthened by his father.  Bill Scheide himself has given it its final shape and, by making it available to qualified scholars in its several areas of special strength, turned it into one of the nation’s unique cultural resources.

            Not surprisingly the Scheide Library is a medievalist’s paradise.  Though our great libraries have perhaps more than their share of the kind of precious painted books that J. P. Morgan and most affluent collectors prized, there are very few Old English language manuscripts in America.  They antedated the great age of book illumination and, whatever their literary or linguistic importance, they lacked glitz.  Well, Mr. Scheide owns two of them, including the Blickling Homilies, among the most important anthologies of Old English prose.

            It would be easy to produce an adequate blog essay merely by giving you an abbreviated catalogue of some of the library’s highlights.  After all the man has a cpy of Magna Carta.  He has a copy of the Declaration of Independence.  Et cetera.  But it is the library’s thematic coherence that dazzles me.  The book that has given us our very word for books is the Bible.  The Scheide library has achieved the bibliophilic version of the hat trick by acquiring copies of all four of the first printed editions of the Bible.

            I presume that the Gutenberg Bible will remain forever the most famous printed book in the world.  I would never contest the justice of that fame, but from the textual and cultural points of view its immediate successors are of yet greater importance.  The New York Times, which ran an appreciation of the “grand slam” Scheide achieved with the acquisition the Mentelin Bible (Strassburg, 1460), seemed to realize that; but even their erudite reviewer left unmentioned what is to me the most interesting Bible in the collection.

            This is an extraordinarily fine copy of the English vernacular “Wycliffe Bible” from the Age of Chaucer, before the invention of printing.  Never mind whether Wycliffe had very much or anything at all to do with this translation; it remains a matchless relic of a crucial and restless moment in English religious history.  I will not try to persuade you that Gutenberg Bibles are a dime or even a hundred million dollars a dozen.  But there are quite a few of them, many in very good condition.  Most of the so-called Wycliffe Bibles were read to death.  I cannot account for the extraordinarily fine condition of the Scheide exemplar, but it must have belonged to a collector long before it fell into Scheide hands.  In any event, Bill Sheide is the kind of collector who has read his books as well as loved them.

            And I do persevere in the whimsical opinion that books have been made to be read.  It is perhaps a paradox of the rare book trade that old books tend to be valuable in inverse ratio to the degree to which they have fulfilled their raison d’ĂȘtre.  The reason we have lots of fine first folios of Shakespeare is that very few people can actually have read Shakespeare in coffee table format.  They read their Shakespeare in quartos, which they also used as coasters for their coffee mugs, and sometimes roof repairs.  The historical results are telling, which may be one of the reasons coffee mugs are generally not allowed in rare book libraries.