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[John Mainwaring]
Memoirs of the Life of the Late
George Frederic Handel

(London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley, 1760)

John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel

Needless to say, not all works on music history are general histories. Biography, another major genre of historical writing, was slow to come to music, especially if we consider the biographical tradition in other fields exemplified by ancient authors such as Plutarch, or even Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century art historian. The first substantial musical biography appeared in 1760: Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel. (Handel had died in 1759.) The author of the Memoirs was not named, and not until 1811 was he publicly identified as John Mainwaring (1724–1807), although some readers—including King George III—were aware of his authorship long before that time. In the Gilmore Library’s copy of the book, four separate handwritten notes (two of them seen here on the title page) name Mainwaring as the author.

Mainwaring wrote only the first 143 pages of this volume, which also contains a catalogue of Handel’s works as well as “Observations Upon Them”; these sections are now thought to be the work of James Harris and Robert Price, respectively. Mainwaring (whose name is pronounced as if it were spelled “Mannering”) was not a professional musician; rather, he was an Anglican clergyman who served for many years as a professor of divinity at Cambridge University. Though he was evidently conversant with music, he devoted most of his attention to the broad outlines of Handel’s life and to a multitude of charming anecdotes about the great man, reserving the detailed discussion of the music for Price’s portion of the book. Mainwaring probably obtained most of his information from John Christopher Smith, Jr. (1712–1795), a composer who—like his father—worked for Handel for many years in a variety of capacities and consequently knew him well. It is not clear if Mainwaring ever had the opportunity to interview Handel directly.

The full text of another copy of this book is available online.


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