Handel in London: The Making of a Genius

George Frideric Handel

Another weekend and I find myself at another book festival: the Dulwich Literary Festival, held in the auspicious surroundings of independent boys’ school Dulwich College. As with the Henley and Cheltenham festivals, it attracts a stellar line-us and there were two authors I was particularly keen to see: Jane Glover and Lindsey Hilsum.

It’s Jane Glover’s interview that I’m going to write about in this post – and, as her interviewer Elizabeth Nicholson reminded us, today is a fitting day to talk about Handel’s experiences of living in London, it being Remembrance Sunday and the first time a German president has laid a wreath at The Cenotaph.

Elizabeth Nicholson and Jane Glover are uniquely placed to speak about George Frideric Handel. Nicholson is Director of the Handel House Trust and Glover is Music Director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, as well as an acclaimed author and broadcaster. ‘Handel in London: The Making of a Genius’ is a labour of love for Glover, who told us that she wanted to take a different approach from his other biographers and write about how & why the composer settled in London.

The research piece was difficult: little contemporary documentation survives about Handel. Just 14 of his “formal and business-like” letters still exist – and most of those are written in French. Glover had to find other ways to understand the man and focused on his music: a “conduit” into Handel’s soul.

Handel arrived in London in 1712 as a young man – and at the right moment. Opera had been performed in London for just a couple of years and Londoners were, in general, “bemused” by it. However, Aaron Hill, manager of the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, believed in this new genre and invited Handel to write an opera, which he did in just two weeks. The perfect opportunity had presented itself –and Handel knew it.

Handel had previously worked in Rome, Venice and Hamburg, but he fell in love with London. It “did something for him”, says Glover – and he, undoubtedly, did a lot for it. In the English capital, he worked with the highest quality musicians, who enabled Handel to write even more beautifully. Handel’s presence in London attracted yet more singers – and he, in turn, relished their talent.

There were, inevitably, clashes. Handel could be dictatorial, not to mention short-fused, and famously threatened to throw one of his sopranos out of a window unless she obeyed him. Mind you, the aria he had written for this singer suited her voice perfectly – and she succumbed, continuing to perform Handel’s work for years.

Handel met his match in some of his Italian singers, but he was capable of showing great kindness to them, especially when they were losing their voices and at their most vulnerable. A philanthropist, he was one of the founders of The Foundling Hospital, to which he donated money, an organ for its chapel, gave concerts for free and persuaded his colleagues to do the same.

During his first ten years in London, Handel boarded with friends in various parts of town, Eventually, he decided to put down roots and identified Brook Street, in up-and-coming Mayfair, as his chosen home. Handel was the first person to live in 23 Brook Street – now the Handel House Museum. He loved his new home and used every iota of space, selling tickets to his operas on the ground floor, rehearsing his singers on the first floor, writing on the second floor and housing his servants on the top floor.

23 Brook Street today

By the time Handel moved into 23 Brook Street in 1923, opera had established itself and Handel had founded an academy. Queen Anne had recently died – leaving Handel an incredibly generous royal pension – and the end of the Stuart line had seen the introduction of the German Hanoverians, an added incentive for Handel to remain in London; his close friendship with the future King George I and Queen Sophia dated back to his time in Hanover.

What, though, of Handel’s private life? Rumoured to have had an affair with a famous soprano while he was working in Italy, no evidence exists of any liaisons in this country, and he never married. The truth, believes Glover, is simple: Handel was a gregarious character and at ease in all types of company, whether dining with royalty or drinking pints with the lay clerks from St Paul’s Cathedral. Yet, at the end of each day what he enjoyed doing most was returning to his much-loved home in Brook Street, eating a good meal and writing music.

Towards the end of his life, Handel went blind – a tragedy for anyone, but particularly hard for this art lover and talented keyboard player. Unable to conduct he did, however, manage to carry on playing his harpsichord and would improvise rather than write down music. Handel died, aged 74, in 1759 – having lived in Brook Street for 36 years and written many of his masterpieces, including Messiah, there.

Handel’s popularity waned after his death, particularly his operas, although his flute sonatas remained a perennial favourite in Victorian drawing rooms. Over the past 50 years, however, Handel’s music has undergone a renaissance – a fact that Glover attributes to (i) the historical performers’ movement, and (ii) the unstoppable rise of counter tenors, perfectly suited to performing the likes of ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Judas Maccabaeus’.

Jane Glover’s talk concluded with a spine-tingling performance of ‘He Shall Feed His Flock’, from Messiah, performed by Dulwich College pupils – the perfect ending to an absorbing afternoon.

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