Did Handel Play the Organ in Old St. Michael’s?

CovSoc member James Rose tells us the the results of his fascinating research…

In Ships of Heaven, an entertaining book about British cathedrals, Christopher Somerville’s list of what was lost in the destruction of Coventry’s old cathedral concludes with ‘the organ that Handel played.’ Surprised not to have heard about this and as no further evidence was provided, I thought the story worth pursuing. I soon found that the organ in the church in Handel’s day had been decommissioned and replaced over a hundred years before the Blitz but whether Handel had played it remained unresolved.

 Handel travelled extensively in Europe as a young man but once he came to England, unless it was to go to the Continent, it appears from his biographies that he rarely ventured outside the capital with one major exception: his 1741 journey to Dublin to give a series of concerts that included the premiere of the recently completed Messiah.

The only way for Handel to travel was by stagecoach. Road strip maps of 1719 and 1765 for the route from London to the ports for Dublin,  Holyhead and Chester, show the southern part of the route as High Barnet, St. Albans, Dunstable, Towcester, Daventry and Coventry, whose main roads in and out of the city were the London Road and the Holyhead Road.

Contemporary accounts indicate that Handel was at the opera in London on October 31st, which was a Saturday, and left ‘some days later’. The stagecoach for Coventry left on Thursdays from The George Inn, West Smithfield, meaning his departure was not until November 5th. In 1740 by a “wondrous effort” it could take just three days to reach Coventry. So Handel could have arrived in Coventry late on November 7th but more likely a day later.

Although goods waggons went all the way to Chester, stagecoaches on the route from London only went as far as Coventry. Handel must have changed coach in the city and must have stayed at least overnight or longer on the outward and on the return journey in August 1742. He eventually arrived in Dublin on November 18th, wind and weather having prevented him from sailing from Parkgate on the Dee by Chester, where he was delayed for some days until he eventually could sail from Holyhead.  

Handel was probably the most famous organist in Europe and even had his own organ transported to Dublin for the concert series. He was also known to play the organ in places that he visited, such as when he was delayed in Chester, when he played The Great Organ at Adlington Hall, the home of his friend Charles Legh.

Moreover, St Michael’s had a fine, new organ built in 1733 by Thomas Schwarbrick (Swarbrook or Swarbrick), a German organ builder living in Warwick. It was said to be a noble instrument and his finest with a number of unusual stops for mechanical instruments such as the harp, lute and dulcimer, features which Handel later incorporated into his own design for organs.

So far, the evidence is that Handel could have played the organ in Coventry’s parish church by virtue of his having stayed in the city en route elsewhere but details as to how the story arose are lacking.

In Organa Britannica: Organs in Britain 1660-1860, based on the notebooks and drawings made by the Anglican clergyman and antiquary, the Reverend John Hanson Sperling from 1782 to 1813, it says of the Swarbrick organ that ‘Handel apparently played the organ frequently’. He is said to have ‘commended the Vox Humana, Double Diapason and the bassoon,’ remarkably specific observations. Inquiries made at the Cadbury Special Collections of Birmingham University Library, which holds the original notebooks and drawings on microfiche, revealed that Sperling made no mention of Handel in relation to St. Michael’s.

However, the Organs in Britain entry indicates that it derived its description from additional sources, a pamphlet of 1912 and a book by the Director of Music at the new cathedral, David Lepine, bearing the promising title of The music and organs of the cathedral and Parish Church of Saint Michael in Coventry. Members of the Coventry and Warwickshire Organists’ Association told me that Lepine did not mention Handel either, which left a 17-page unnamed pamphlet of 1912 as a possible source.

The archivists from the Cadbury Library identified the pamphlet of 1912 as

Collegiate Church of St. Michael, Coventry.

An Appeal for the Restoration and Completion of the ORGAN with Historical Notes on the Organs and Organists from 1505 to 1912.

The Historical Notes section by Frederick John Harker (1867-1952), Assistant organist in 1912says:

‘Handel frequently performed upon the Schwarbrick organ in St. Michael’s and was much pleased with it, especially commending the Double Diapason, Bassoon and Vox Humana. The swell was much admired for its sweetness of tone, compass and admirable effect, and the Choir Organ (which) was a very unusual feature in those days.’

The Double diapason is a stop on the Great organ that links certain keys together; the swell organ has pipes enclosed behind louvres that can be gradually opened to produce a crescendo and the Choir organ is a softer, quieter organ suitable for accompanying the choir. Each of these was controlled from a separate manual, meaning that the organ had the ‘very unusual feature’ of three manuals.

Frederick Harker became the cathedral organist in 1928 and in the pamphlet lists his predecessors in unbroken succession back to Thomas Deane who played the first organ in 1733. On hearing that Handel was in town, Dr Deane would surely pay his respects and invite him to play the organ, committing his revered words to memory to be passed down from organist to organist, accounting for the interesting and specific details.

Staying overnight or a little longer on the way to and from Dublin, however, hardly amounts to frequently. Paul Maddocks informs me that there is a local oral tradition supporting the idea of more frequent visits and relates these to a friend of Handel’s who lived in or near Coventry. While Handel may have formed a friendship with Dr. Deane, a more likely candidate is Charles Jennens, the librettist of several oratorios including Messiah, which Handel had finished only days before leaving for Dublin.

Having unsuccessfully scoured the usual Handel biographies for any mention of Coventry, I searched for references to Jennens and Gopsall Hall, the family seat to the north of Coventry. Otto Erich Deutsch’s documentary biography of 1955 says that Handel tried to meet Jennens at Gopsall on his way back from Dublin and an article in Musical Times of 1902 says that Handel ‘often visited Gopsall’. Neither mentions their sources.

Whether his destination was Chester or Gopsall, Handel’s road lay through Coventry with its mighty Swarbrick organ. It remains  unclear if Handel’s visits to Coventry began when he first collaborated with Jennens in 1735 or after 1747 when Jennens inherited Gopsall Hall. In either case, we are entitled to believe that Handel did perform on Swarbrick’s great organ in old St. Michael’s – frequently as local oral tradition has it.

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