Handel's Hidden Life: A New Exhibition at the London Home of the German Composer Gives Wendy Moore an Insight into the Troubled Personal Circumstances of the Man Behind the Soaring Music

By Moore, Wendy | History Today, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Handel's Hidden Life: A New Exhibition at the London Home of the German Composer Gives Wendy Moore an Insight into the Troubled Personal Circumstances of the Man Behind the Soaring Music


Moore, Wendy, History Today


During the 49 years that he lived, worked and performed in London, the composer George Frideric Handel was one of Georgian Britain's most public characters. But behind the walls of his house in the heart of the capital's West End, Handel the man remained a solitary and private individual.

Still among the most popular of composers, Handel continues to confound scholars and biographers today. A prolific composer who dashed off more than 70 operas and oratorios, he kept no diary and wrote few letters. He never married and avoided confidences so that his personal life emerges in tantalising glimpses from caricatures and anecdotes.

But, in an effort to bring the composer to life in the year commemorating the 250th anniversary of his death, researchers have reconstructed Handel's time in London from pictures, manuscripts and artefacts. Staged in the house in Brook Street where Handel lived and died, recently restored as a museum, the exhibition Handel Reveal'd examines the composer's work, health and friendships. The man who emerges is a contradictory personality with some surprising secrets.

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Born in 1685 in the German city of Halle, Handel was a skilled keyboard player by the age of seven and began composing music when he was just nine. After travelling and performing throughout Europe, he visited London in 1711 and settled in the city the following year with financial help from Queen Anne and later his compatriots Georges I and II.

Handel moved into the newly built four-storey townhouse at 25 Brook Street in 1723 and it remained his home and workplace until his death. The modest house was one of four built by a speculator in the upcoming area south of Oxford Street as part of the migration westwards of London's well-to-do.

'One of the most common sights Handel would have seen from his window was scaffolding,' says Martin Wyatt, deputy director of the Handel House museum. Both Hanover and Grosvenor Squares were being laid out at the time while north of Oxford Street fields still stretched to the villages of Marylebone and Islington.

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It was an ideal spot for a bachelor pad. All the essential elements of Handel's professional world were a short stroll or chair ride away, says Wyatt. Handel's publisher was based in Regent Street, his favourite instrument makers worked in Soho and the opera house in Covent Garden, where his trademark oratorios were staged, was close at hand.

It was in this house that Handel composed his best-loved music, including Messiah and Music for the Royal Fireworks, and it was here too, in the 1740s, that he made the all-important shift from Italian opera to English oratorios.

A hugely creative musician, who wrote full-length works in the space of a few days, Handel was also a wily entrepreneur. Dubbed by some as the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, Handel not only composed music for public performance, he ran the opera company in Covent Garden and sold scores and tickets from his house. Bank records show he was an astute businessman who sold his South Sea Company stocks just before the 'bubble' burst and earned an enviable four per cent return on his investments. Yet, while he accumulated a sizeable art collection, Handel also ploughed donations into the Foundling Hospital, where Messiah was performed annually, and the Fund for Decayed Musicians, now the Royal Society, of Music.

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But behind the successful professional career lay a troubled and secretive private life. …

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