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Royal Music Library - Handel's manuscripts

Queen Charlotte and George III had for a long time been staunch upholders and admirers of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). There had been some talk of Handel bequeathing his manuscripts to the University of Oxford, but as far as we know, no firm proposal was made. Instead, Handel had written in his will, dated 1 June 1750, that 'I give and bequeath to Mr Christopher Smith my large harpsichord, my little house organ, my musick books, and five hundred pounds sterling'.

There are two Mr Christopher Smiths - J. C. Smith the Elder, Handel's close friend and principal copyist, and his son, J. C. Smith the Younger, who also helped Handel in many ways in his final years. We know that the books passed to Smith the Elder, since under the terms of his own will they passed to his son on Smith the Elder's death in 1763, less than four years after Handel's own death in 1759. Smith the Younger was to live until 1795, but parted with the scores probably around 1773, when he presented them to George III, in gratitude for the continuation of a pension of £200 per annum which he had received as a member of the household of Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales and which the King continued following her death in 1772.

Part of the autograph score of Handel's last oratorio, 'Jeptha'

Part of the autograph score of Handel's last oratorio, 'Jeptha'; 1751. The British Library, R.M.20.e.9., f. 22r. Copyright © The British Library Board

The scores which passed into Royal hands were of course the autograph manuscripts of Handel's works. But the 'musick books' mentioned in Handel's will must have included at least two other groups of manuscripts which did not reach the Royal Music Library. One group is the sketch material and other miscellaneous smaller pieces which are now to be found in fifteen volumes in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Handel also kept at home the complementary collection of conducting scores, copied from the autographs by Smith the Elder and others and used by Handel in performance. We tend to call this group, most of which are now housed in Hamburg, 'conducting scores', but in fact, especially in the early London years, the score used for conducting was often one which was the property of the theatre in question and these scores kept at Handel's house were in such cases more archival copies than performance copies. Handel's fastidiousness in keeping an archive of copies is an important aspect of his character, and for one who reused already-written music so extensively it was clearly a great boon for everything to be easily retrievable as quickly and easily as possible.

Handel's autographs actually constitute only about a quarter of the Handel books in the Royal Music Library today: there are also a large number of manuscript copies, as well as several printed editions (including Dr Arnold's famous collected edition, published in 54 volumes between 1787 and 1797). A set of upright folio volumes (the autographs were almost all written in oblong format) within the Royal Music Library is generally known as the 'Smith collection' possibly after J. C. Smith, or possibly after another copyist Robert Smith. It seems more likely than not that these volumes were originally copied by other scribes altogether, for Frederick Prince of Wales, father of George III; that they passed to the library of George III, and that the King then gave several of them away to various of his musical acquaintances - in fact, a couple of these manuscripts came to light elsewhere in the 1950s and were eventually reunited with their companions. Various other Handel manuscripts were acquired for the Royal Music Library from time to time, including some as late as 1918 from the Aylesford collection, the collection formed by Charles Jennens most of which is now in Manchester.


Dr Nicolas Bell
Music Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7772
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7751