After the performances of the Dublin version of Messiah in 1943 (see our previous post), the choir’s conductor George Thewlis kept up a similar approach to performing the work. In his manuscript list of the choir’s performances (now in the Bodleian) he wrote under the heading of the 1946 Messiah: ‘These performances of ‘Messiah’ were complete ones with the original Handel accompaniments.’ It was much harder in the 1940s and 50s to put on such performances, as the readily-available accurate scores that we enjoy today by Watkins Shaw and others lay in the future, and far less was known about all the different manuscript sources and the complex composition history of the work. We don’t know exactly how Thewlis coped with the problems of editing and copying for his performances, but we do know about one source that he employed. From 1954 to 1960, the Messiah programmes contained a note by him, stating that the performance was based on a manuscript which he owned:
This … manuscript came into my possession about 1940, and the performance to-day is edited from it. The date of completion of the MS. is 1766, one year before the first full score was printed. It contains all the alterations and additions made by Handel between his first performance in 1742 and the printing of the full score after his death, and so may be considered the final draft of the work.
Thewlis states that this manuscript ‘was written by Thomas Harris, uncle of the first Lord Malmesbury.’
Thomas Harris (1712-85) was a younger London friend of Handel, a barrister and Master in Chancery, who witnessed the first three codicils to Handel’s will and received a legacy of £300 from the final codicil. He owned the attractive portrait of Handel by Philippe Mercier, which according to the inscription on the back was given to him by the composer c.1748.
More is now known about Thomas Harris’s connection with Handel than in the 1950s, because of the discovery of much new material in the Harris papers, now in the Hampshire Record Office, which provide a wonderful picture of a circle of friends who admired the great composer. Handel used to visit Thomas in his rooms in Lincoln’s Inn, and Thomas passed on news about him to his elder brother James, another supporter of Handel, who put on performances of the oratorios in the Salisbury music festivals and owned manuscripts of the composer’s works. James paid the composer a splendid tribute in a letter of 1753:
Handel for rapidity of invention, & for the universality of his ideas, the sublime, the terrible, the pathetic & every other, has exceeded all that ever I have yet heard of, or ever expect to hear of. Nor is he more to be admired for his invention, than his art, in which he has given samples, that none have transcended, & but few have been able to equal.
What became of Thewlis’s manuscript? It turns out that he had sold it to the Oxford bookseller Albi Rosenthal in 1950. According to a description in Watkins Shaw’s A Textual and Historical Companion to Handel’s Messiah of four scores whose whereabouts had not been traced when Shaw’s book was written in 1965, it was advertised for sale as signed by Thomas Harris:
Score, one volume (225 pages), oblong folio. Signed and dated ‘Tos Harris Script. Ludlow, 1766’. It was advertised for sale in 1950 by A. Rosenthal Ltd., 5, Turl Street, Oxford, who purchased it from Mr. G.A. Thewlis of Oxford. In 1957 Mr. Rosenthal wrote on my behalf to the purchaser to ask permission to disclose his name and address, but no reply was received.
We don’t know where Thewlis acquired his manuscript or to whom it was attributed at that point, but it transpires that he was mistaken in associating it with Thomas Harris. When I was trying to find out what had become of the manuscript today, in response to an e-mail, Professor Donald Burrows kindly supplied me with the information that the abbreviation in the colophon reads ‘Jos’ not ‘Tos’ and that the manuscript was in fact written by a musician called Joseph Harris. It is now to be found in the Lilly Library, Indiana, which has generously allowed me to reproduce some pages from it below. Professor Burrows also directed me to an article by Thomas McGeary which gives a very full account of both the manuscript and its copyist.
Joseph Harris is an interesting figure, whose life sheds light on the careers of provincial music professionals. But he was too young to have known Handel directly, as he was born in Birmingham in 1744.
Not much is known about his early life until 1764, when he was appointed organist in the largest parish church in Shropshire, St Laurence’s Church in Ludlow, on a salary of £30 a year. The church had just been given a John Snetzler organ by the Earl of Powys at a cost of £1,000. In 1771, Harris published by subscription Eight Songs set to Music by Joseph Harris Organist, of Ludlow; subscribers included the Countess of Powys, to whom the work was dedicated. In the same year, he moved back to Birmingham to become organist of St Martin’s Church, with a ‘large and opulent’ parish and married his second wife, Anne Sylvester, ‘an agreeable young Lady, with a genteel Fortune’ (quotations from Aris’s Birmingham Gazette). In 1773, in order to raise his profile, he took the degree of B. Mus. from Oxford, using as his composition exercise, played in the Sheldonian, a setting of Milton’s ‘Song. On May Morning’ as Ode to May; the manuscript of this is held in the Bodleian. As the father of a growing family, he supplemented his income by taking pupils, including the daughter of the wealthy industrialist Matthew Boulton, and he continued to publish compositions by subscription, including Six Quartettos for the Harpsichord, Organ or Pianoforte and Twelve Songs, and to take part in concerts, playing the harpsichord or organ. Harris was known as an admirer of Handel and sang in the 1784 Handel Commemoration in Westminster Abbey. Towards the end of his life, he seems to have been in financial difficulties. He died in 1814 and received a death notice in The Gentleman’s Magazine.
Harris wrote out his Handel manuscript in his Ludlow period. It is handsomely bound in red morocco:
The hand is beautifully clear:
It appears to have been largely written at one time, with a few later insertions. Harris seems to have made it not with a view to a performance but for interest: part of the aim was to collect together as many of the different versions of the arias that Handel had composed for his different performances, as we can see from the contents list at the beginning:
At the end of the manuscript Harris added in a set of oboe parts for the Hallelujah Chorus and ‘Worthy is the lamb’ and also two further alternative settings composed for the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni: ‘But who may abide’ and ‘How beautiful are the feet’.
McGeary concludes that it is not possible to identify the manuscripts from which Harris was copying, but that these were probably not those produced under the supervision of John Christopher Smith, Handel’s manager. Though Thewlis rather overestimated his manuscript’s importance due to his misattribution of its copyist, it did offer him, as one of many early copies of Messiah, something much closer to Handel’s original conceptions than was provided in most early twentieth-century performances (see our previous post). It also bears witness to the popularity this great work had earned among the musicians of Handel’s day.
- Thomas McGeary, ‘Joseph Harris, Birmingham organist (1744-1814), and his Messiah manuscript’, Early Music, 39 (2011), pp.165-182.
- Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill, Music and Theatre in Handel’s World; the family papers of James Harris, 1732-1780 (OUP, 2002). The quotation by James Harris given above will be found on p.295.
The next post will look at the phenomenal popularity of the choir’s annual Messiah over four decades and the continuing exploration of Handel’s own versions by successive conductors.