Handel, Suites de Pièces, and a practical test in dating early printed music

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It’s not every day that we come across rare early printed music in amongst donations here at Trinity. So when my colleague told me that he’d found an eighteenth century edition of the first volume of Handel’s Suites de Pièces pour le Clavecin, I confess I was a little sceptical. But it was true! In amongst a donation of sheet music from the pianist Alfred Kitchin, there it was (see image). However, as is often the case with early material, dating the edition precisely was quite a challenge.

My first port of call was RISM (vol. A/I/4) which lists something similar: ‘Suites de pieces pour le clavecin … premier volume. – Wright & Co.’ (H 1434). There are only five copies of this, but still, it wasn’t quite right. Our copy has ‘printed by … H. Wright’ in the imprint rather than ‘Wright & Co.’. Not only that but comparison with the University of Michigan’s copy (dated 1786) revealed that there was also a discrepancy in page numbers – 94 pages as against the 67 pages in our copy (and the copy is clearly complete). A quick search on COPAC revealed that the British Library has a copy with the same imprint as ours but with the higher number of pages. They have dated theirs, tentatively, to 1795.

At this point I decided to find out something about the printer H. Wright. Charles Humphries and William Smith’s Music Publishing in the British Isles (1970) gives the following information:

Wright (Hermond) or (Harman). Music printer, music seller and publisher, London; 13 Catherine (or Catharine) Steet, Strand, February, 1785-1801; 386 Strand, 1801-03. Succeeded Wright and Co.; advertised as “Successor to Mr. Walsh”; some time after Wright ceased publishing his entire stock of plates was purchased by Thomas Preston, 97 Strand, London.

So it seems our copy was certainly printed between 1785 and 1801 (when Wright was at Catherine Street) but more probably after 1795 when the British Library copy was produced.

The connection with ‘Mr. Walsh’ in Humphries and Smith’s description is important. This was John Walsh, the publisher of many of Handel’s first editions.  The number 490 in the bottom right hand corner of our copy is the plate number for Walsh’s 1735 edition of the Suites de Pièces. So Wright had reused the title page to make our copy (replacing Walsh’s name with his own), but had he reused the rest of the plates? Happily a copy of the first volume of Walsh’s 1735 edition has been scanned into IMSLP. This has 94 pages, as with the Wright & Co. edition, and the music is printed on four staves per page. Our copy, however, is printed on five staves per page, which accounts for it being shorter, at 67 pages. This means that the music would have had to have been newly engraved, an expensive process at the time, and thus constitutes a new edition.

One final clue to dating our copy was to check for watermarks. Holding it carefully up to the light revealed a date of 1796, which is consistent with what I had already surmised. Of course this date is only a lower boundary as the paper may have been stored for some time before being used for printing. Therefore, we are left with a publication date of between 1796 and 1801.

So far as we have been able to discover, only one other copy of this edition has survived in UK libraries. This is held by the Gerald Coke Handel Collection at the Foundling Museum, where they also have almost every other edition of Handel’s music you could possibly imagine. We have added our copy to the Bridge Memorial Library where we also hold a number of other eighteenth century items, including several other Handel editions printed by John Walsh and his successors. The library is kept in special storage in a closed access area but can be searched via the online catalogue and items are available for research by appointment.

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