An 18th-century manuscript recently acquired by John Burkhalter and Eugene Roan, called the Neff manuscript, is a magnet for specialists of various sorts. Performers of sacred music, of vintage military music, and of baroque compositions have already unearthed authentic material in its sturdy pages. A student of dance history has found the forgotten tunes to known choreography. Historians can detect clues about social life at the time the Constitution was adopted, in particular about the interface between English-speaking and German-speaking residents of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And antiquarians can admire the craftsmanship of the leather-bound volume, and the authoritative hand of the copyist who filled it.

Burkhalter, who plays recorders, and Roan, who plays keyboard instruments, are the founders of “The Practitioners of Musick,” a performing duo created in 1999 to play baroque music. In their appearance at the Princeton Public Library, on Friday, March 24, at 7:30 p.m., a significant portion of the keyboard music on the program comes from the Neff manuscript. They intend to have it with them at the concert, available for all to touch.

Burkhalter and Roan invite me to have a close look at the manuscript in their Princeton home. After more than two centuries of existence the brown calfskin covers of the volume are both extant, though one of them has come loose. The contents of the volume, which measures about eight by ten inches, consist of 244 pieces, written on two staves so that they can be played on a keyboard instrument. Adaptations of music for strings, winds, and voice have been legibly copied into the volume in dark brown ink. The organization of the book seems to have no particular order, with minuets, marches, polonaises, airs, sonatas, sonatinas, and other pieces randomly appearing.

Burkhalter and Roan believe that the manuscript was compiled by Dr. Christian Neff of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in about 1790 for his personal use, and that he engaged a skilled person to copy music from various printed sources. They call the collection “an encyclopedia of musical taste in Philadelphia and a matrix for one or more doctoral dissertations.” The volume, they point out, includes old-fashioned music by George Frederick Handel and Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, as well as new pieces by then contemporary American composers.

Evoking the context for the manuscript, Burkhalter says, “Philadelphia was the capital of the United States, and was therefore a political, social, and cultural center. Lancaster was the bread basket for Philadelphia. Lancaster was a cultivated town. It was culturally important, and was the intersection between German and English America. It had artisans, organ builders, and piano makers. A major spur of the post road that ran from Maine to South Carolina went from Philadelphia to Lancaster. And the post road was a highway of ideas and commerce. Franklin College was established in Lancaster in 1787. It was a bona fide college, not just an academy.”

Burkhalter and Roan learned of the existence of the Neff manuscript from a friend who had seen it at the Philadelphia Antiquarian Book Show. The manuscript had already been vetted by Kate Van Winkle Keller, a leading authority on American music and dance, called on when fakes and forgeries are suspected in documents in her field.

“When we learned that Kate Keller had vetted the manuscript, we were reassured about its authenticity,” Burkhalter says. “Then, when we saw it, we knew that it was an important document, and thought we needed to buy it. We thought that the price for the manuscript was fair, and we didn’t dicker.”

Robert Grabowski, a Lancaster dealer in rare books and manuscripts, was the seller of the manuscript. When I ask him how the manuscript came to light, I encounter a commerce-imposed obliteration of its provenance. “The manuscript turned up at a public sale in Lancaster County,” Grabowski says. “The location is confidential. I bought it from somebody who bought it at the sale. That’s confidential, too. There’s no way to track down its source. When there’s an auction, that information is not normally given out.”

Grabowski offers a conjecture. “I surmise that the manuscript was held locally, but it was not something that the owner wanted to hang onto for their family.”

The quality of the manuscript and its connection to history in the region attracted Grabowski. “You just don’t see things from that period much,” he says. “It was carefully done. You can tell that the copyist knew something about music. It intrigued me that a lot of it was in German. That’s a big Pennsylvania Dutch connection.”

Keller, whom Grabowski called in to vet the manuscript, came up with a meticulous report, of which Burkhalter gives me a copy. Although she finds no clues to the identity of the copyist, Keller is able to deduce much about how the manuscript came into being.

She concludes that the manuscript was written by one hand, that the copying was without hesitation, and that the music was entered after the book was bound. I am intrigued about Keller’s analysis, and she generously explains how she reached her conclusions. Long experience is a large part of the explanation. For over 30 years Keller has been working with handwritten music from the 17th to the 19th centuries in Britain and America.

To account for her conclusion that the manuscript was written by one hand she says, “Musical handwriting varies dramatically from one scribe to another. Clues are treble clefs, beaming patterns, accidentals, note heads and stems (right or left side, etc.), styles of eighth and 16th notes, and such. The inking also tells when a new hand is at work.”

Keller reveals her clues for detecting hesitation. “Copying with hesitation is usually full of awkward spaces, crossed out notes, inserted measures that were left out, and changes of pen nibs. It often occurs when a manuscript is created from an oral source or from memory. The scribe has to stop and think, or sometimes makes mistakes and follows up with corrections. When a scribe is copying music already written down, he usually creates clean copy that flows from one measure to the next without pauses.”

A simple observation leads to Keller’s conclusion that the music was entered after the book was bound. “Music entered on sheets that were bound later will usually be caught in the gutter. This collection seems to have been created in a bound book, avoiding the gutter.”

The Practitioners of Musick are happy to share the Neff manuscript with their colleagues. “We use the manuscript and want to let musical friends know that it exists and can be dipped into,” Burkhalter says. Roan included a teaser of several selections from the Neff manuscript for an October program at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. The group Le Triomphe de L’Amour included the Neff version of Alexander Reinagle’s march celebrating the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in a January program.

Born in 1951, Burkhalter grew up in Trenton and Lawrenceville. Both his parents were dedicated amateur musicians, participating in church choirs and amateur choral societies. He started studying recorder before he was 10 and temporarily abandoned the instrument. In school ensembles he played clarinet and oboe. At the New England Conservatory of Music he studied the performance of early music with Daniel Pinkham. At Harvard he studied baroque performance practice with Frans Bruggen.

Burkhalter’s expertise includes the ancient musical cultures of the Americas. He collects and plays ancient meso-American musical instruments.

Roan, born in 1931 in Albany, Georgia, began piano studies at age nine, and added organ as a teenager. Originally an English major at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, Roan changed his major to music after hearing a concert by French organist Marcel Dupre. He graduated as an organist from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute in 1954. Two years later he earned a degree in choral conducting from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, where he was invited to teach organ. As a professor emeritus Roan has taught harpsichord at Westminster.

The Neff manuscript joins the Practitioners’ holdings of more than 250 scores of original 18th century editions of music, which they allow other musicians to use. Among local groups who have benefited from the Practitioners’ assistance, in addition to Le Triomphe de L’Amour are Philomel, Brandywine Baroque, and the Highland Park Recorder Society.

I am somewhat nervous about Burkhalter and Roan’s decision to bring the manuscript with them to the Princeton Library concert. Maybe I am just more finicky about protecting a manuscript more than 200 years old than the Practitioners of Musick are.

The source of my worry is a warning on one of the early pages of the Neff manuscript. It comes in the form of an extended zigzag drawn with a light purple pre-Crayola crayon between the top two staves. I’m not sure whether the pencil scribble nearby is done by the same hand, or which was done first. Both of these look to me like the work of a three-year old, whose parent snatched the precious manuscript away before the child could scribble anything more.

With luck no one whose fingers are stained with ink or lipstick or grease will touch the manuscript at the Princeton Library.

Music in the Pursuit of Refinement, Friday, March 24, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. The Practitioners of Musick, John Burkhalter and Eugene Roan, present music known and heard in 18th century America. 609-924-8822.

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