A rare publication of a manuscript of the famous Messiah by composer George Frederick Handel that dates back to the 1700s has been discovered in the Bay of Plenty.

It is believed to be one of only four copies in the world.

The 233-year-old manuscript, printed from an etching on copper plate, is a reduction of the score of the Messiah for voice, harpsichord and violin. It is owned by Colin and Stephanie Smith of Tauranga.

The Western Bay Museum in Katikati will host a performance of excerpts from the 1784 Messiah manuscript by soloists from the University of Waikato in November. During the performance the manuscript will be on display for the first time in the southern hemisphere.

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Mr Smith said the manuscript was in a pile of unsorted music offered as part of a house lot from the estate of a person in Christchurch some 40 years ago. He didn't sort the music until 10 or 12 years ago when he discovered the Handel manuscript about half-way down the pile.

"I realised the manuscript was 18th century and published not long after Handel's death, and showed it to my wife, Stephanie. It was put to one side until a year or so later when we discussed the find with Dr Rachael Griffiths-Hughes from the University of Waikato Arts and Social Sciences."

Mr Smith had a long association with some of the Waikato University music staff as a dealer, valuer, and repairer of stringed instruments. He also gifted a harpsichord to the music school some years ago.

Colin Smith.
Colin Smith.

Dr Griffiths-Hughes was very excited by the discovery and did some research, discovering in the process just how rare the publication actually was.

"As far as we know there are only four copies world-wide which makes it special in spite of its fairly battered condition," said Paula Gaelic, Western Bay Museum manager.

"1784 was the 25th anniversary of the death of Handel. London had embraced the German-born composer as its own some 70 years earlier, and took the opportunity offered by this anniversary to stage a series of Handel concerts, and to re-publish some of his best-loved works in new editions.

"The Messiah composed in 1742, was one such work, even though it has been continuously performed since its composition. With the rapid rise in popularity of amateur music-making in the home, an arrangement for 'parlour performance' of this much-loved work was made and published in 1784."

The Smiths' copy is from that edition.

The Smiths' association with Western Bay Museum is through the Killen gown, gifted by Dr Barbara Smith (Colin's cousin), which is mounted and on display there. The Killens are one of Katikati's early pioneering families - Mary Elizabeth Killen was Mr Smith's grandmother.

"Colin and Stephanie came to the museum when Te Papa's Conservator of Textile and Costume, Sam Gatley, was here in August last year to mount the historic silk gown into a glass showcase.

"He invited me to have a cup of tea with him and from there he gifted the Smith violins to the museum," Mrs Gaelic said.

Mr Smith watched the process and said he remembered his grandmother wearing the gown.

In May Mrs Gaelic contacted Dr Griffiths-Hughes about the possibility of Waikato University performing parts of the Messiah at the museum. Mr Smith suggested a talk on the history of Handel and the Messiah with selected pieces performed.

Dr Griffiths-Hughes agreed and will present a short lecture on the history of the work, and will then be joined by university soloists Lara Hall (violin), Martin Griffiths (cello), Amy Thomas (soprano) Cecily Shaw (mezzo), Koli Jayatunge (tenor) and Ian Campbell (baritone) for a performance of excerpts from the manuscript.

As the museum is only able to seat 40 guests it was decided to hold the concert at St Paul's Presbyterian Church instead.

Mrs Gaelic is thrilled. She believes this is a wonderful opportunity to bring such a professional cultural experience to Katikati and the Bay.

There will be two concerts held on November 25, at 3pm and 7pm, at St Paul's Presbyterian Church in Mulgan St, Katikati. Tickets are $30pp and available from the Western Bay Museum, Main Road, Katikati, phone (07) 549-0651 or online at www.westernbaymuseum.nz/tickets

Tickets $30pp available at Western Bay Museum, Main Road, Katikati, Ph 07549-0651 or online www.westernbaymuseum.nz/tickets