George Frideric Handel has many fans. No less than Beethoven called him 'the greatest musical composer who ever lived'. Jimi Hendrix once lived in his former dwelling in London where Ruth Rendell is the main benefactor of the Handel House museum. His bed, in which he died precisely 250 years ago, forms the centrepiece of 'Handel Reveal'd', a new exhibition opening there this week. The shortened bed (Handel slept sitting up) is a modern reconstruction but, like the rest of the museum, is authentic in its detail. The Handel expert Christopher Hogwood calls the setting for the museum 'a film-set house'.
This is in part thanks to a painstaking inventory of the composer's possessions which was carried out at 23 Brook Street upon his death. Back then, of course, Brook Street and the surrounding Mayfair area wasn't seen as upmarket. Handel was the first occupant of his home, built to attract aspiring middle class tenants. Although he nurtured and retained important connections at court, and died a rich man, both Handel's political and financial fortunes endured peaks and troughs.
Perhaps this isn't so surprising, however, when the tumult of the era is considered. Both Handel and his music played witness to great events at a time of massive flux in British society. The Jacobite Uprising and the South Sea Bubble occurred during his lifetime, as did an explosion in the open political dissent of the coffeehouses. His 1727 naturalisation as a British citizen - a personal request of King George I, himself a German 'import' - is indicative of the increasingly cosmopolitan make-up of the capital city. Handel's music is associated both with Italian opera, the X-Factor of its day, as well as with the new middle class playgrounds of the time, such as Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
An anonymous wit of the day described the relative importance of these issues thus:
"Are you High Church or Low?
Whig or Tory;
Are you for Court or Country?;
King George or the Pretender:
But are you for Faustino or Cuzzoni?
...There's the question" *
Handel adapted well to the changing times. He sold sheet music from a shop on the ground floor of 23 Brook Street, while composing and performing upstairs. His health was also tested. At various times Handel experienced obesity, binge eating, and paralysis. He died blind. As Hogwood says 'he would persist in the face of an apathetic public, an altered musical taste, and rumours of a decline in his powers'.
As one moves between rooms on creaky timber floors and specially-widened staircases (for musical instruments), little imagination is needed to picture the great Hanoverian bulk doing the same. A menu of Handel's likely daily diet hangs on one wall. On another are a collection of portraits spanning youth to old age. These include a death mask. A stunning reproduction of an 18th century harpsichord sits in the main music room. Its my firm conviction that musical instruments should never be kept behind glass cases, and, thankfully, Handel House's curators have chosen to let musicians come in and play regularly on this wonderful example.
Despite very few personal accounts or letters, and the distractions of caricatures and Victorian anecdotes, the life and (more interestingly) times of this intensely private man has been successfully reproduced. A visit to Handel Reveal'd is highly recommended. Mark April 14th in your diary - there is free entry and music performances all day at Handel House.
*Popular Italian castrati singers of the day.