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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

An Anecdote Involving Handel and a 'Scoundrel' who Could not Sing at First Sight (1741/1784)

‘When Handel went through Chester, in his way to Ireland, this year 1741, I was at the Public-School in the city, and very well remember seeing him smoke a pipe, over a dish of coffee, at the Exchange-Coffee-house; for being extremely curious to see so extraordinary a man, I watched him narrowly as long as he remained in Chester; which, on account of the wind being unfavourable for his embarking at Parkgate, was several days. During this time, he applied to Mr. Baker, the Organist, my first music-master, to know whether there were any chairmen in the cathedral who could sing at sight; as he wished to prove some books that had been hastily transcribed, by trying the choruses which he intended to perform in Ireland. Mr. Baker mentioned some of the most likely singers then in Chester, and, among the rest, a printer of the name of Janson, who had a good base voice, and was one of the best musicians in the choir. At this time Harry Alcock, a good player, was the first violin at Chester, which was then a very musical place; for besides - public performances, Mr. Prebendary Prescott had a weekly concert, at which he was able to muster eighteen or twenty performers, gentlemen, and professors. A time was fixed for this private rehearsal at the Golden Falcon, where Handel was quartered; but, alas! On trial of the chorus in the Messiah “and with his stripes we are healed,” - Poor Janson, after repeated attempts, failed so egregiously, that Handel let loose his great bear upon him; and after swearing in four or five languages, cried out in broken English: “You shcauntrel! Tit not you dell me dat you could sing at soite?” - “Yes sir, says the printer, and so I can; but not a first sight.”’



Charles Burney, An Account of the Musical Performances in Westminster-Abbey (London: T. Payne, 1784).

The image below is an interior view of Westminster Abbey painted by Edward Edwards c.1790 which depicts the commemoration of the death of Handel. The event itself took place between 26 May and 5 June 1784 and the choir and orchestra was supposedly made up of 525 performers.

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