18 November 2016 at 5.47pm | 9 Comments
Handel may have been born in Halle but he was a Londoner through and through. The composer moved to the city in 1713 and remained here until his death in 1759. Over almost fifty years he transformed London’s experience of music, be it through his operas, his English oratorios (a genre he invented), his celebratory anthems or his charitable performances. He made his mark, and then some – and nearly three hundred years later we can still revisit some of the places he would have known. Let’s walk.
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden
The Theatre Royal – now known as the Royal Opera House – was built by John Rich (previously at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre down the road) in 1732. Handel first worked at Rich’s theatre in 1734, taking refuge after a falling-out with the managers at King’s Theatre Haymarket (down the road in the other direction). Over the next 23 years the Theatre Royal hosted the premieres of more than twenty Handel operas and oratorios, including such big hitters as Ariodante, Alcina, Judas Maccabeus, Solomon and Jephtha. The theatre has changed a lot since Handel’s time – the first theatre burnt down in 1808, and its replacement was also destroyed by fire, in 1856. The current theatre was opened in 1858 and became the Royal Opera House in 1892.
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square
Yes, you read that correctly. True, the National Gallery only opened in 1838, nearly eighty years after Handel’s death. But were he still around he might have found the frontage uncannily familiar. The columns in the National Gallery’s portico were in fact salvaged from Cannons – the magnificent country house in Edgware, built by James Brydges, first Duke of Chandos and one of Handel’s earliest supporters on his move to England. Handel was resident composer in Cannons 1717–8 and the house saw the premieres of his Acis and Galatea, as well as the Chandos Anthems. Brydges spared no expense with Cannons, but by his death his fortunes had turned and his successors were forced to raze the mansion a mere 33 years after it was built. Numerous architectural splendours were hawked off – including the columns from the house’s colonnade, which now adorn the National Gallery.
King’s Theatre, Haymarket
What we now know as Her Majesty’s Theatre is in fact one of the oldest theatre sites in the city. John Vanbrugh built the first theatre here in 1705 as the Queen’s Theatre. Handel’s association with the theatre began just a few years later in 1710, very early in his London career, when he provided incidental music for Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist. The King’s Theatre (as it became in 1714) witnessed the first flourishing of Handel’s operatic brilliance (including the premieres of Rinaldo, Radamisto, Floridante, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda etc etc) and he was co-manager of the theatre 1729–34. In 1734 Handel shifted shop to Covent Garden, but the break was by no means absolute and the theatre saw numerous further premieres later in Handel’s life. As with Covent Garden, the current theatre isn’t one Handel would recognize: Vanbrugh’s theatre burned down in 1789, and its successor suffered the same fate in 1867. The current theatre dates from 1868 and has been showing The Phantom of the Opera for the last 30 years.
Westminster Abbey and St James’s Palace
London wouldn’t be London without a bit of royalty. As the leading composer of his day, Handel was called on more than once or twice to provide suitably magisterial music – including ‘Zadok the Priest’, one of four coronation anthems written to celebrate the coronation of George II in Westminster Abbey. The piece is now not only an integral part of British pomp and circumstance but is also beloved by football fans as the theme for the UEFA Champions League. Handel also wrote numerous anthems for the Chapels Royal in St James’s Palace, both for the Inigo Jones-built Queen’s Chapel on Marlborough Road and the Chapel Royal within the palace itself – in the headlines most recently as the site of the christening of Prince George.
St George’s, Hanover Square
Handel wasn’t the only one moving to London in the first part of the 18th century, and in 1711 parliament passed a decree requiring 50 more churches to be built to serve the city’s growing population. One of these was St George’s, Hanover Square, just round the corner from where Handel would make his home in Brook Street. The church was consecrated in 1725 and Handel was an active member of the parish from then on until his death, with his contributions including – as you’d expect – providing his expertise on the church’s choice of organ and organists. Handel is probably the church’s most famous worshipper, although its Mayfair location has meant it has had its fair share of celebrity, including in 1886 hosting Theodore Roosevelt’s marriage to Edith Kermit Carow.
25 Brook Street, West End
Handel called this London townhouse home from 1723 until his death. After a varied career and a brief spell in disrepair, the house was bought up by the Handel House Trust in 2000, and now hosts a museum dedicated to its illustrious first owner. There must be something about Brook Street – in 1968 Jimi Hendrix bought a flat in the house next door.
Foundling Hospital, Bloomsbury
Jamila Gavin’s novel Coram Boy has made new generations familiar with Handel’s charitable work with the Foundling Hospital, established to give a home to abandoned children. The charity was founded in 1739 and moved to a sizeable new building in Bloomsbury (then on the outskirts of London) in 1745. The day after a performance of Handel’s Messiah there in 1750, the composer was made a governor of the charity, and maintained a close link to its work until his death. There’s now nothing left of the buildings Handel would have known, as the hospital was demolished in the 1920s. Nevertheless, some its lands were retained as Coram’s Fields, a seven-acre park exclusively for children and young people, while the Foundling Museum provides a lasting tribute to the charity’s work.
St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral, one of London’s most iconic landmarks, was a relative novelty in Handel’s time, as Christopher Wren’s magnificent Baroque building was only officially opened in 1711. Then as now it was a site for very public services, including in 1713 a ceremony to celebrate the peace-bringing Treaty of Utrecht, for which Handel provided a Te Deum and a Jubilate.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, Lincoln’s Inn
Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre was originally a real tennis court; its conversion in 1660 gave great joy to Samuel Pepys, who called it England’s ‘finest playhouse’. In due course the theatre was knocked down and rebuilt as a new theatre, which in 1728 hosted the premiere of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera – itself something of a send-up of Handel’s Italian operas at the King’s Theatre. The surprise success of The Beggar’s Opera was such that the theatre’s manager, one John Rich, had enough capital to up sticks and build the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Several Handel works were subsequently staged at Lincoln’s Inn, including the premiere of the ode L’allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato in 1740. There’s nothing left to see of the theatre, which was demolished in 1848 – although you might pop into the (not Handel-related but still interesting) Hunterian Museum on the same site.
Much of Georgian London lives on – so which Handel pilgrimage sites would you add?
Discover more about Handel’s London in the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, at the V&A Museum 30 September 2017–25 February 2018.