Martin Wyatt, Deputy Director, Handel House Museum, holding a rarely-seen plaster life mask of Handel by Roubiliac, c.1740s. From a private collection. (In the background: George Frideric Handel by Thomas Hudson, oil on canvas, eighteenth century, from The Royal Collection ©2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). ©MF Barrett

Handel At Home

9th April 2009

George Frideric Handel by Thomas Hudson, oil on canvas, c. 1756-60. Credit: The Royal Collection ©2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

When Handel moved into Brook Street, Mayfair, in the summer of 1723, he was approaching the height of his career. He would remain there until his death in 1759. The building is now the home of the Handel House Museum, where the 250th anniversary of the composers’s death is being marked with a special exhibition: Handel Reveal’d.

Jack Watkins went to meet Martin Wyatt, deputy director, and discuss the great man’s legacy…

A brief flurry of excitement brushed across the media art world recently when Jessica Duchen, writing in The Independent, described George Frideric Handel as ‘a one-man baroque-and-roll hit factory.’ His ‘pleasant’ chamber and orchestral works were, she said, but muzak next to those of Beethoven, and he lacked the spirituality of Bach. Furthermore, he stood accused of churning out operas with music ‘borrowed’ from other composers and recycled from his own material. In this the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, her comments sounded like the chunterings of a churl at a much loved figure’s birthday party, but they are not accusations that seem to concern Martin Wyatt, deputy director of the Handel House Museum.

“Handel wasn’t the only one to borrow from other composers. They were all doing it. Anyway, a lot of them were quite genial about it. One said: ‘He took our pebbles, and polished them into gems.’

And re-using his own material? Wyatt says that this has to be seen in the context of the times. “These days, we have access to everything on CD, on the internet or through the scores. But Handel’s physical audiences were much smaller. So if he did recycle, he was doing it for different groups of listeners. If you take Esther, the first English oratorio he wrote… he produced that when he was working for the Duke of Chandos at Cannons in Edgware. Ten years later, someone else mounted a production of it, so to rival it, he mounted his own, bigger, production. It was so popular, he revived it several times, on the final occasion of which adding the music we now know as Zadok the Priest. Now at that time, Zadok had only ever been heard by the thousand or so people who had turned up at the coronation of George II. No-one had gone out and bought the CD.”

As to Handel’s spirituality or lack of it, Wyatt points to many sublime moments in the oratorios, but agrees that where Bach was “looking to heaven” most of the time, Handel was a more human composer. “He was in a major metropolitan city, writing for its people and understood their world. But listen to ‘He was Despised’ in The Messiah – that one aria is worth any one of Bach’s cantatas.”

Spinet made by Joseph Mahoon (1749) in the Composition Room at Handel House Museum. Handel is thought to have owned a keyboard by Mahoon. Credit: ©Malcolm Crowthers

The Handel House Museum, which opened in 2001 after a painstaking restoration, has chosen to mark this anniversary not with an exhibition devoted to exploring his music, but with an attempt to bring us closer to a man who has long seemed unknowable. What emerges is someone far removed from the rarified romantic 19th century image we still carry of artists and composers, living in penury and self-denial for their art.

Handel never starved in an attic, explains Wyatt. “He was a businessman, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. He gave a lot of money to charity, and left a lot more to them in his will. He was really the first composer to control publication and sale of his scores. He was a very practical man, I think, very much a man of the London theatreworld.”

The commemorative Handel Reveal’d exhibition includes – very topically – a stock ledger from the Bank of England where Handel kept his account. He played the stockmarket cleverly for many years, managing to sell his shares before the South Sea Bubble burst, and thus being one of the few moneyed folks of the time to emerge from it unscathed. The ledger provides an insight into the Handel the impresario as much as the musician.

“In order to transfer stock he had to physically go into the bank and sign for it,” says Wyatt. “So we have a pageful of signatures where you can shrewdly see him shifting his money in and out as his finances got better or worse. You can see when his opera companies were in season, because he was depositing large amounts, which were the box office takings. Then at the end of the season, whatever he had left, he would invariably use to buy shares.”

Handel’s Bedroom at 25 Brook Street. Handel died in this room early on the morning of 14 April 1759, having announced the previous evening that he would no longer be receiving guests at the house as he had ‘done with the world'. ©Matthew Hollow

Brook Street was a relatively modest middle class dwelling, although by his death, Handel was a wealthy man, worth around £1.7 million in today’s money. Yet his opera companies ended in financial failure, largely because of the ruinous expense of paying Italian singers. Handel recognised the problem and started introducing English oratorios into the season.
“Cheaper English singers, no flashy sets, machines or costumes – they were far less costly to mount,” says Wyatt. “He was quite unique in this ability to balance the inspiration of his music with the ability to be a careful businessman as well.”

Handel was famously overweight and, towards the end of his life, suffered from palsy, had a series of strokes, and eventually lost his sight. The exhibition displays several tracts describing the cures he took, and some rather alarming examples of contemporary surgical instruments, guaranteed to send shivers down visitors’ spines. But the man, to an extent, remains elusive. As Wyatt explains, he never kept a journal or diary, and the surviving anecdotes came largely from people a generation after he died. He never married, and despite the gossipy nature of the journals of the day, no hint of scandal or of personal relationship attached itself to his name.

Most depictions of Handel in statues or illustrations reflect his reputation for being short-tempered and irascible. “But we do know he had a very dry sense of humour,” says Wyatt. “My favourite is of the time he was rehearsing a particularly difficult tenor, making him go over the piece again and again. The tenor finally snapped and shouted ‘If you make me do this one more time, I shall come down into the pit and jump on the harpsichord’… To which Handel replied, ‘Please let me know when you are going to do it. I will sell tickets, because more people will come and see you jump than to hear you sing.’

Handel Reveal’d continues until 25 October.
For more details see handelhouse.org or call 020 7495 1685.

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