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Handel in London

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Handel, Collection of Foundling Museum

Handel came to London and spent his whole professional life here because he could stage his music successfully and live independently.

Offered a patronage position in Hanover, he had accepted the salary for a year, but he disliked being a servant. Offered a passage to Italy by a member of the Medici family, he had preferred to go ‘on his own bottom’ (Mainwaring, 41). Musically he learned much in Italy, but he found the War of the Spanish Succession both tedious and threatening. What he wanted was a peaceful but exciting place where he had a chance to make his own way.

Handel was big, exuberant, prodigiously talented and a hard worker. He had met Brits he liked who liked him. He received a warm invitation to visit London from Charles Montagu, fourth earl of Manchester, British ambassador in Venice. In December 1710, when he was 25, Handel arrived in London.

He learned English (though he usually spoke using words from the five or six other languages he knew), began composing and conducting, survived the collapse of one opera house in London and helped to organize another as a joint-stock company. The Spectator (6 March 1711) reports that Handel's first opera was ‘filled with Thunder and Lightening, Illuminations and Fireworks’. Handel directed the performances from the harpsichord, thereby introducing himself to the London public as performer, director, composer and fireworks impresario extraordinaire.

He accepted a £200 annual pension from Queen Anne, but he seems to have earned every penny of it by composing royal anthems, including one used at every coronation since George I, 'Zadok the Priest'.

Coronation Anthem, BBC Symphony Orchestra

Composing two or three oratorios or operas a year, suffering the pirating of his scores, but working out a publishing arrangement with the son of the pirate, Handel had a glorious career which included charitable donations that are still making a difference today.

If I might pause to say how I felt the first time I ever heard a live performance of Messiah while squeezed into an overflow crowd in a cathedral nave -

The thrill of jumping to my feet with a thousand others when I heard the Hallelujah chorus at the end of Part II was only exceeded by the effect of one line sung by the soprano. In years since I have heard countertenors sing this role, but like Handel I prefer a soprano. On this night, the soprano appeared tense, and gripped a handkerchief, not in Pavarotti's dramatic style, but as if she really might need it to blow her nose.

Messiah's a difficult piece, it seems to me, if you are a soloist because you are a little like a hitter heading up every other inning to the plate to bat. You have to hit your notes when you've been sitting silently for a quarter of an hour or longer in a large hall, feeling perhaps as if you ought to be in bed.
She sang beautifully, but I felt worried enough to say a short prayer. Since I didn't know the music, I had no idea what was coming when she stood in Part III, her dress glittering, her throat bare, and the words and the song floated into the air – "I know that my Redeemer liveth." The notes, the words, the voice, so pure, so beautiful, made me feel my heart had stopped with happiness – along with everyone else who was there.

That is the effect of Handel's music. It was poignantly described by someone who listened to a Handel sonata on YouTube and left this comment -

I live in a ghetto in a poor country where classical music is dead. Harmonico, Thanks for this, which I play loud to drown the noise from my neighbors. Baroque music makes me happy specially Handel.

Handel was one of the original members and supporters of the ‘Fund for Decay'd Musicians’, a charity founded in April 1738. He was also a great supporter of the Foundling Hospital, where orphans were cared for. He held concerts to raise funds for the orphans - he never married or had children of his own - and donated the score of Messiah to the Foundling Hospital.

Handel died on 14 April, Easter Saturday, 1759, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. On the 25th anniversary of his death, a huge public commemoration and celebration was held. Money was raised for the Society of Musicians, and more than 500 performers, approximately equally divided between players and singers, took part.

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This year, the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death is being remembered at the Foundling Museum. Concerts and talks have been organised by the Museum in association with the annual London Handel Festival. If you are lucky enough to be in London, here are the events you can enjoy at

The Foundling Museum 40 Brunswick Square, near Russell Square Underground Station.

THEODORA: Talk at the Foundling Museum
Monday 23 February, 4pm – 5pm
Free, booking is necessary. Call 01460 54660.

Professor Colin Timms discusses the libretto and music of Handel’s oratorio Theodora, which is performed that evening at St George’s, Hanover Square, 7pm as the opening concert of the London Handel Festival. It marks Handel’s birth date.
 
HANDEL AT THE FOUNDLING: Evening concert
Tuesday 3 March, 7pm – 8.30pm (doors open 6.30pm)
£25 with pay bar, call 01460 54660 to book.

Rachel Brown (flute & recorder), Katherine Sharman (cello), Laurence Cummings (harpsichord).
Flute sonatas frame Walsh’s compilation of highlights from Samson. The programme concludes with the great D minor recorder sonata from the Fitzwilliam Museum.
 
Flute Sonata in A minor (‘Halle’) HWV 37
Adagio, Allegro, Adagio, Allegro
Overture and Aria arrangements from Samson (Walsh)
Flute Sonata in E minor (‘Halle’) HWV 375
Adagio, Allegro, Grave, Minuet
Recorder Sonata in Bb major (‘Fitzwilliam’)
Courante, Adagio, Allegro
Harpsichord Suite No8 in F minor HWV 433
Recorder Sonata in D minor (‘Fitzwilliam’)
Largo, Vivace, Furioso, Adagio, Alla Breve
 
HAYDN IN LONDON: Evening concert
Tuesday 10 March, 7pm – 8.30pm (doors open 6.30pm)
£25 with pay bar. Call 01460 54660 to book.

REVOLUTIONARY DRAWING ROOM: Adrian Butterfield (violin), Jean Paterson (violin), Rachel Stott (Viola) and Ruth Alford (cello). The Revolutionary Drawing Room performs three of his great string quartets, two of them written for London audiences and the third his last complete work in the genre.
 
Quartets:
Op.71 No.1 in B flat major
Op.64 No.5 in D major ("The Lark")
Op.77 No.2 In F major
 
MESSIAH FROM SCRATCH: Rehearsal and evening concert
£20 for singers and audience, with pay bar, call 01460 54660 to book.

Saturday 4 April, rehearsal: 2pm – 5pm, concert: 7pm – 8.30pm (doors open 6.30pm) 
The Little Baroque Company, led by Helen Kruger, will be putting together a performance of Handel’s famous Messiah from scratch in an afternoon. If you are keen to join in and sing then book your place to become part of this impromptu choir, otherwise come to the Museum and be part of the audience at the evening concert to enjoy the performers’ hard work. Laurence Cummings (conductor), Elena Sancho (soprano), Hanna Hipp (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Joy (tenor) and Andrew Finden (baritone/bass).
 
THEODORA: Talk at the Foundling Museum
Wednesday 8 April, 6pm – 7pm
Free, call 01460 54660 to book.

Dr Ruth Smith introduces Handel's last great dramatic oratorio, Jephtha. Towards the end of his career Handel becomes more and more daring. After a visionary drama with a wrenchingly sad ending (Theodora), he took on a libretto about a father's sacrifice of his daughter, which is apparently ordained by God. Why did Thomas Morell offer Handel this subject, and how did Handel make such appalling material into a masterpiece?

Thanks to Olivia Rickman for these concert details.


Handel came as a stranger to Britain, created music that is both part of British tradition, and transcends it, and made Britain his. He was a genius, to be sure, but it was much more than genius that he gave, and much simpler. It was love.

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