Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Handel's Houses

Back in 2001, Daniel Snowman looked at two museums located in the composer's German and English residences. Here we reprint the article in full to mark the 250th anniversary of the death of London's adopted Hanoverian composer.

One of the first things people tell you in Halle, a small Saxon town in eastern Germany two hours south of Berlin, is that, in the decade since German reunification, many of its brighter young citizens have left to seek fame (or at least fortune) elsewhere. It is a story prefigured by Halle’s most famous son, the composer Handel, who was born there in 1685 but died in London at his home in Brook Street, just off Hanover Square, in 1759. The Halle birthplace has long contained an exhibition of Handel’s life and work; this month, London follows suit as the Handel House in Brook Street opens to the public.

Halle was in the heart of the German Democratic Republic and is only now emerging from forty-odd years of Communism and, before that, the iron grip of the Nazis. Today, as part of reunited Germany, Halle is in the Land of Saxony-Anhalt and is ruled from nearby Magdeburg – just as it was when the archbishops of Magdeburg wielded power in medieval times and when Luther emerged in the 1520s.

Dr Handel, the composer’s father, was sixty-two when his illustrious son was born. As a young man, he had trained as a barber-surgeon, a vocation given much scope by the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War. The Peace of Westphalia (1648), which marked the end of the war, declared that the archbishopric of Magdeburg was to become a secular duchy administered by the incumbent Duke Augustus of Saxony and that, on his death, it would pass to the electorate of Brandenburg. Dr Handel got on well with Duke Augustus, mending his arm in a successful operation and becoming his private surgeon. Wealth and kudos followed, and the doctor bought a substantial new residence for himself and his family in Halle.

The Duke finally died in 1680 – at which Halle (like Magdeburg itself) became part of the rapidly rising state of Brandenburg, to be ruled henceforth from Berlin. Poor Dr Handel lost much of the prestige and income to which he was accustomed. Two years later, his wife died. But he must have been resilient, for he picked up the threads of his career as a surgeon and remarried a woman nearly thirty years his junior. Their son, Georg Friedrich Handel, was born on February 23rd, 1685, a citizen of Brandenburg-Prussia and subject of its ruler, Frederick William ‘The Great Elector’.

Handel was baptised the next day in the Liebfrauenkirche, the late Gothic church that dominates the Halle marketplace. The baptismal font is still there, as is the Reichel organ on which the adolescent Handel would play a few years later. The great ‘Red Tower’ across the marketplace from the church can also still be seen today; so can the austere Calvinist cathedral a short walk away, where, aged seventeen, Handel became organist, and the Moritzburg and Giebichenstein castles. And Halle still contains the house where Handel was born and in which he lived until he left town for Hamburg in 1703.

The house remained in the possession of the family until the 1770s. On the centenary of the composer’s death, in 1859, a statue was erected in the centre of the marketplace and there was talk of the house being acquired by the city. This finally happened in 1937. Two years later, war broke out and it was not until 1948 that the house, properly renovated, was opened to the public as a museum. In 1985, the tercentenary of Handel’s birth, the adjacent property was added. Today, the extensive upper rooms contain an excellent portrayal of Handel’s life and work, a soundtrack (in English if required) sensitively integrated with excerpts from his music, as well as a display of early musical instruments. Downstairs, musical performances can be given to audiences of a hundred or more. The first Handel Festival was held in Halle in 1952; this year’s (in June), in venues all over Halle and beyond, was the fiftieth.

Halle couldn’t hold Handel. His prodigious talent demanded a larger stage. In Hamburg, he played in the opera orchestra and composed several works which were performed there. He travelled to nearby L├╝beck (like Bach a couple of years later) to meet the organist and composer Buxtehude. Buxtehude seems to have offered Handel a post as church organist which he turned down – supposedly because a condition of taking the job was marriage to Buxtehude’s unenticing daughter. In any case, Handel’s interests were rapidly turning from the liturgical to the dramatic. It was opera that interested him, and that meant going to Italy. For four years, Handel absorbed the musical culture of Florence, Venice, Rome and Naples, befriending not only influential composers such as Corelli and the Scarlattis, but also the aristocratic and ecclesiastical magnates who supported them. He returned to Germany in 1710, armed with recommendations to several of the most brilliant courts, notably that of Hanover. By the end of the year we find Handel – still only twenty-five – in the largest, liveliest city in the world, London, where his reputation was confirmed by the success of his new ‘Italian’ opera, Rinaldo.

Handel returned to Hanover where he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector. It was a quiet, civilised life, but Handel seems to have been aching to revisit London. The Elector agreed he could go, on condition that he return ‘within a reasonable time’. Once back in London, however, Handel’s obligations to Hanover seem to have slipped his mind as he built up a successful career, secured in 1714 by a pension for life granted by Queen Anne. Later that year, Anne died and the House of Stuart was succeeded by the House of Hanover. Handel’s former employer was now his king.
Did the new monarch, George I, resent his former employee’s truancy? Did Handel’s Water Music, accompanying the king’s barge ride up the Thames, reconcile monarch and musician? The story probably contains more legend than fact, though the two men renewed their friendship soon enough. Handel, almost as great a celebrity as the king, lived in a succession of grand homes, among them Burlington House and the Chandos estate at Cannons. In 1723, he took a lease on a newly-built house in Brook Street. This was to be his home until his death in 1759 and it was here that he wrote the great oratorios of his later years, including Messiah.

This month, the house opens as the Handel House Museum. The Director, Jacqueline Riding, has planned her display by theme. Thus, the first room introduces visitors to the vigorous social and cultural life of London in the 1720s, while another suggests something of Handel’s character and private life (including a full-tester bed dressed in crimson). The front room on the first floor, the largest in the house, is where Handel is believed to have held rehearsals and entertained. Here, images and artefacts evoke the musicians and others with whom Handel worked, while the centrepiece is a working harpsichord for use by professionals and students as well as for concerts and other public events. A fourth room is devoted to composition.

‘The idea,’ says Jacqueline Riding, ‘is that the visitor will wander through interiors closely resembling those Handel would have known, looking at images associated with Handel’s life and career, whilst hearing music as visitors during Handel’s lifetime would have heard it.’

The museum also comprises rooms in the adjacent property (built at the same time by the same developer, and restored with equal care) which will provide space for temporary exhibitions, education activities, an audio-visual room and a small shop.

The thematic approach of the Handel House Museum nicely complements the essentially chronological display of its sister museum in Halle. Handel, I like to think, would have approved of both. Was he German or English, people still ask? The answer is that he was both. Handel (like Holbein, Prince Albert or Nikolaus Pevsner) was one in a long line of distinguished immigrants to Britain who, by their artistry and entrepreneurship, enriched the cultural life of their adopted country and thereby the wider world.

Grosse Nikolaistrasse 5
D-06108 Halle, Germany
Tel: +49 345 500900
Fax: +49 345 50090411

Handel House Museum
25 Brook Street,
London W1K 4HB
Tel: 020 7495 1685
Fax: 020 7495 1759
Email: mail@handelhouse.org

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