In 1985, that legendary European year of music chosen because three hundred years previously three of our greatest composers had been born, Handel, JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, there was a very interesting exhibition about Handel in the National Portrait Gallery organised by the late Christopher Hogwood who also wrote the first edition of his book on this most multicultural of composers.
It seemed unbelievable at the time that, just 25 years later, Handel’s house in London from 1723 until his death there in 1759 would be opened as a museum to the great man himself.
The guiding light behind this amazing transformation was Stanley Sadie, the musicologist who managed to buy a house which even Handel only rented and which is in the centre of London’s most exclusive property market, Mayfair. At the time the house in Brook street was a new build for the emerging middle classes and conveniently placed near theatreland where Handel’s and his rival’s operas would be performed.
It’s interesting to compare this house with Benjamin Franklin’s place near present day Charing cross, which we visited earlier this year, both in their very similar Georgian architectural features and in their current presentation. Franklin’s house is empty of furniture and fittings and relies on actors and dioramas to bring it alive.
Handel’s pad is furnished, though none, except for a spinet, is original and relies on rehearsals and concerts to make it breathe.
Indeed, we entered Handel’s original rehearsals room bathed in the exquisite tones of a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord being played by a young Spanish girl. It was here that Handel would rehearse his soloists and he took no antics from prima donnas, according to reports! The room at the back which used to have a clavichord, now in the Maidstone museum (why can’t they at least lend it to Handel’s house?) is where such masterpieces as Zadok the priest and Messiah were composed – indeed most of the pieces we’d heard in Colombini’s glorious concert at the servite church in Lucca the previous month. No pretty lake with wild fowl to shoot at for Handel (I’m thinking of Puccini, of course), just a back view of even more terraced houses in a fast growing city.
Upstairs is the bedroom where Handel died. An intensely private man he left a generous will especially to his servants and an excellent art collection, much of which was unfortunately dispersed.
Soon we’ll be able to visit Handel’s neighbour’s house next door, who also just happened to be a great musician too – Jimi Hendrix – and who I was privileged to hear at Woburn in 1970.
At least I didn’t miss one of these greats playing live!
After visiting the house we spiritually said goodbye to its greatest former occupant (and the very helpful staff, of course) and felt completely refreshed and ready to face London’s muggy, crowded streets where the capital’s hottest day this year reached 27 C yesterday.