Discovering Handel in the Archives

In the Cathedral Library’s music collection are many archive documents collected over the decades from music performances. They are not just those that were held at the Cathedral but also some items from other places. Some of these items caught my eye because of their age or their particular connection to Worcester Cathedral. They all have in common the great composer George Frederick Handel.

An engraving of Handel. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

An engraving of Handel. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The first two items I came across were a couple of books of words from the Three Choirs Festival held at Worcester in 1773. The first is for Handel’s Messiah, and the other is the book of words for the same composer’s oratorio Jephtha. The Messiah booklet is a mere 11.8cm x 18.8cm (4.5inches x 7.4 inches) and Jeptha is only 15cm x 18.2cm (5.9 inches x 7.1 inches). Both are in good condition.

Messiah Book of words

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Jephtha Book of words

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Handel was born in Halle, which is in Saxony-Anhalt (Germany). He came to England in 1710 and faced many struggles when living here, including bankruptcy, being caught up in the public’s fickle attitude toward their Hanoverian monarchs, and enduring the machinations of others who were jealous of the composer’s success. Nevertheless he persevered, eventually was granted British citizenship, and came to be held in great affection by the British people. Many of his works have been performed ever since and in particular the Messiah is very popular. This is attested by the collection of Handel music scores and music programmes of performances of his works in the Cathedral Library, as well as a bust of the composer.

Handel’s Messiah was composed in less than a month between August and September 1741. During his lifetime some proceeds from performances of the Messiah were given to charity by the generous composer. Indeed Handel’s charity extended to various good causes, including a fund for poor musicians and the Foundling Hospital in London.

He wrote Jeptha in 1751. Handel normally composed his music relatively quickly, but this piece took him about eight months to finish. This was because he was beginning to lose his sight. He had three operations on his eyes to cure his blindness but sadly they did not succeed. However, the fact that he had gone blind did not stop him performing music which he continued to do until the end of his life.

The next early music archive document in our story is a surviving music poster advertising a concert in the cathedral in 1779. The second piece performed at the concert was Zadock the Priest. This was originally composed as part of the Coronation Anthems which were commissioned by King George II for his coronation, which took place on 11th October 1727.

1779 Zadok the Priest music poster

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

It is perhaps no surprise that when King George III, Queen Charlotte and the princesses visited Worcester in August 1788 one of the pieces they listened to in Worcester Cathedral was a performance of Handel’s Messiah. They were here to attend the Three Choirs Festival and to visit their friend Bishop Hurd at the Bishop’s Palace (now called the Old Palace). Nearly three thousand people were also there for the Cathedral performance.

King George III and Queen Charlotte in the cloisters

King George III and Queen Charlotte depicted in a window in the cloisters of Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Handel continued to be a popular choice of composer for concerts during the Victorian era in Worcester, and again the archive documents reflect this. On 3rd December 1846 Saul was performed at the Worcester City and County Library located in Pierpoint Street, which was also the venue on 18th December 1848 for a performance of Judas Maccabeus. The Cathedral also has Worcester Music Hall programmes from 20th December 1877 of Judas Maccabaeus, 30th December 1879 of Messiah and 21st December 1875 again of Messiah. This tradition of Handel choral concerts seems to have transferred to the Cathedral in the twentieth century.

Victorian music concerts of Handel

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The association of another great composer Sir Edward Elgar with a piece of Handel’s music also comes to light in the Cathedral’s music archives. It was a printed copy of Handel’s Overture in D minor (part of the music composed for the Duke of Chandos between 1718 and 1720) that Elgar used in his transcription that was played at the opening service of the 1923 Three Choirs Music Festival. This Handel score had been donated to the Cathedral by Dr. Hugh Blair, Cathedral organist in the late nineteenth century.

These few items give us just a glimpse into what local people can discover about their city’s musical heritage. There are surely more musical connections waiting to be discovered in the Cathedral’s music archives.

David Morrison


D.6.7 Jeptha an oratorio or Sacred Drama as it is performed at the Music Meeting in Worcester- set to music by Mr. Handel, Worcester, 1773

D.6.6 Messiah an oratorio set to music by Mr. Handel- Majora Canamus, Worcester 1773

H30 Handel’s Music composed for the Duke of Chandos, London, n.d.[1789-97]

Cathedral Archive Music Programmes: A1.3.E5, A1.3.E11, A1.3.E37, A1.3.E51, A1.3.E52, A1.3.F11, A1.3.F18, A1.3.F19

Anon, A Concise History of Worcester, Worcester 1808

Victor Schoelcher, The Life of Handel, London, 1857

Emil Naumann, The History of Music, special edition with Sir F. A. Gore Ouseley, London n.d. (but pre-1889).

  1. S. Rockstro, The Life of George Frederick Handel, London 1883.

Valentine Green, The History and Antiquities of the City and Suburbs of Worcester vol. 1, London 1796

William Moore Ede, Worcester Cathedral- Its Monuments and their Stories, Worcester 1925


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