Academic journal article Notes

The Fonds Schoelcher: History and Contents

Academic journal article Notes

The Fonds Schoelcher: History and Contents

Article excerpt

The French writer and politician Victor Schoelcher is well known to scholars of George Frideric Handel's life and works as author of an important biography of the composer, The Life of Handel (London, 1857). Schoelcher was also a cataloguer and avid collector of Handel's music. His catalogues, though never published, have served as a basis for subsequent efforts, and his collection of manuscripts, printed editions, and librettos must be counted as one of the major Handel collections.

Schoelcher's Handel library, now at the Bibliotheque nationale, Paris, has lain in relative obscurity: there is only one scholarly study of it in the literature (1) and there is no published catalogue. The collection, however, merits much greater attention. A summary, manuscript listing of part of its contents can be found at the Bibliotheque nationale, and that list, combined with Schoelcher's own catalogue of his library and with a rough estimate of as yet uninventoried portions of the collection, shows that the Fonds Schoelcher numbers more than three thousand items, including eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manuscripts, first and early editions, arrangements, opera and oratorio librettos, newspaper clippings, programs, tickets, and even posters.

I am presently cataloguing the collection and offer here a preliminary report on its history and contents. I emphasize the fact that this report is preliminary: so far, I have catalogued about 1,300 items. Nonetheless, it is already clear that this is an important collection that deserves to be better known.


The son of a porcelain manufacturer, Schoelcher first made his mark as an art critic, but it was during a voyage to the Caribbean and the southern United States in 1829-30 that he found his true calling, when he encountered slavery for the first time. From that date on, Schoelcher was a tireless champion for the slaves of the French territories, publishing numerous pamphlets and books based on research conducted in many of the countries where involuntary servitude was practiced. When he was appointed Under-Secretary of State for the colonies in 1848, he wrote, and succeeded in passing, the law abolishing slavery in the French colonies. For that, Schoelcher is still revered in the Caribbean today: in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guyana monuments evoke his memory, his portrait graces the majority of town halls, and the "esprit schoelcherien" is referred to almost daily in the press. (2)

Schoelcher opposed the coup d'etat of December 1851 and, like his friend Victor Hugo and many others, was exiled. Schoelcher spent the next eighteen and one-half years in England. In August 1870 he returned to France and directed a legion of artillery during the siege of Paris. In 1871 he was elected to the National Assembly, where he served until being voted a senator for life in December 1875.

Schoelcher was a prolific author; many, but by no means all, of his writings concern the abolition of slavery. (3) He also campaigned for prison reform and revocation of the death penalty, fought for the rights of women and children, chronicled various historical events of his time, and wrote essays and two books on music, the Life of Handel and La Modernite de la musique (Paris, 1881).

Finally, he was a distinguished collector. His library, a point of pride, was noted by more than one contemporary. Over the course of his long life, Schoelcher amassed a remarkable collection that was generously given before his death to a variety of libraries and museums. (4) To the Bibliotheque nationale he gave several thousand books in 1884 and, according to one author, a further 18,000 volumes after his death in 1893. (5) Between 1879 and 1885 he donated to the Ecole des Beaux Arts a collection of more than 9,000 engravings along with 500 reference works and a detailed, six-volume manuscript catalogue he co-authored with his colleague Wundt. …

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