Handel at 25 Brook Street
When Handel lived in Brook Street he was at the heart of a vibrant social and musical community. He was near palaces, theatres, coffee houses and churches. He knew many influential people from royal and aristocratic patrons to musicians, poets, writers and artists. He never married but he maintained a close group of male and female friends. Featured here are some of the people and places in London that Handel knew best.
A: 25 Brook Street (known as Lower Brook Street in Handel’s time)
By the summer of 1723, Handel was 38 and had lived in London for almost ten years. He had become famous and financially successful, allowing him enough income to run his own household.
This was to be his home for the rest of his life and it became a centre for music-making and entertaining amongst Handel’s contemporaries. Sometimes there would be as many as 40 people packed into the Music Room made up of singers, instrumentalists and an audience to listen to Handel’s latest creations.
B: Green Park
Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was written to accompany an ambitious public firework display in Green Park in 1749. A vast wooden structure with intricate architectural detail was specially erected to support the fireworks, and over 16,000 people attended. The music was very popular, but the firework display was less successful than hoped. Horace Walpole explains that ‘The rockets, and whatever was thrown up into the air, succeeded mighty well; but the wheels and all that was to compose the principal part, were pitiful and ill-conducted…and then, what contributed to the awkwardness of the whole was the right pavilion catching fire and being burnt down in the middle of the show.’
C: Joseph Goupy (French artist and caricaturist, 1689-1769)
Goupy was a close friend and neighbour of Handel’s, who sometimes visited him here.
The two men fell out in 1743 when Handel refused Goupy’s request that he should write an opera for the Prince of Wales. Goupy responded to Handel’s stubbornness and his general reputation as a glutton by publishing a satirical caricature of the composer depicted as a fat boar playing the organ surrounded by an excess of food and drink.
D: Anne Donnellan (friend of Handel, died 1762)
Anne Donnellan was a friend who lived within a short walking distance of Brook Street and took a keen interest in Handel’s musical career. Mrs Donnellan told her friend Mrs Delaney that ‘she loses half her pleasure in Handel’s music by his not being here to talk over the particular passages.’
In 1755, Mrs Donnellan had a new harpsichord built by Jacob Kirckman and invited Handel round to play it. Only when he had given it his seal of approval did she agree to pay Kirckman’s bill for 9 pounds and 9 shillings.
E. Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre
The Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre stood where the Hunterian Museum now stands in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1733 the theatre became the home of the Opera of the Nobility, which was set up by a group of nobles under Frederick, Prince of Wales to rival Handel’s Royal Academy of Music that was backed by George II and Queen Caroline. The rift between Frederick and his father prompted the upper echelons of society to take sides and this was most notably represented by which opera company they supported. To make matters worse for Handel, some of his star performers were poached by the Opera of the Nobility, including the castrato, Senesino and the soprano, Francesca Cuzzoni.
Francesca Cuzzoni (opera singer 1696-1778)
Cuzzoni was one of the most acclaimed singers of her day. She performed nine roles in Handel’s operas over five years, including Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. She often behaved like a diva and her stubborn refusal to do as she was told caused friction with the equally tenacious Handel.
John Mainwaring, Handel’s first biographer, describes an incident where Handel threatened to throw Cuzzoni out of the window, exclaiming ‘Oh! Madame I know that you are a she-devil, but I am Beelzebub, the chief of Devils’.
After returning to Italy for a brief time, Cuzzoni returned to London and joined Handel’s rival opera company that were based at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Francesco Bernardi “Senesino” (castrato singer from Siena, 1686-1758)
In the first half of the 18th century the most highly prized singers were castrati who had been castrated before their voices broke. Senesino was one of the most successful of these singers, whose voice was described as powerful and sweet with perfect intonation.
He liked to dress extravagantly and was followed everywhere by a monkey, a parrot and a host of female admirers. He sang 17 leading roles for Handel’s Royal Academy of Music earning an enormous fee for each performance.
However, the relationship between them was a stormy one and in 1733 Senesino defected to join Handel’s biggest rivals along with Cuzzoni.
F: Westminster Abbey
Handel knew Westminster Abbey well and his music was often performed there, most famously the anthems he wrote for the coronation of George II in 1727. Handel also left £600 in his will for his burial in the Abbey.
His funeral took place there and was attended by around 3,000 people. The monument above his tomb, designed by the famous sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac, was unveiled three years after his death, in July 1762.
G: St James’s Palace
On one of his early visits to London in 1713, Handel wrote the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne which was performed in the Great Presence Chamber at St James’s Palace. The Queen was very ill and had to be carried into the chamber to hear it, but she enjoyed it so much that she granted Handel a payment of £200 a year for life.
Ten years later, in 1723, George I appointed Handel ‘Composer of Musick for His Majesty’s Chapel Royal’ at St James’s Palace.
H: Old Slaughter’s Coffee House
Art and literary figures such as Handel, William Hogarth and Dr Johnson often met at the Old Slaughter’s Coffee House on St Martin’s Lane. The establishment sat in a street full of shops, coffee houses and boarding houses for artists, musicians and craftsmen. It was a popular place to play games including chess, draughts and whist.
I: The Foundling Hospital (children’s charity, founded in 1739)
The Foundling Hospital was a home for abandoned babies and children and was sponsored by many prominent members of society, including Handel. Handel was elected as Governor in 1750 and Messiah was performed every year until his death in 1759, raising around £7000. When he died, Handel bequeathed a Messiah score and copies of the performing parts to the charity so that the annual concerts could continue, which they did until 1777.
J: The Queen’s Theatre (later King’s Theatre), Haymarket
The Theatre at Haymarket was designed by John Vanbrugh, and opened in 1705. Handel’s first opera for the London audience, Rinaldo, was premiered here in 1711.
After moving to London permanently, he wrote over 25 operas for the theatre until around 1739 when the popularity and fashion for Italian opera dwindled.
K: Sir Hans Sloane (contributor to the British Museum 1660-1753)
Hans Sloane collected objects, notes and musical notation from his travels around the world, which became part of the founding collection of the British Museum.
He invited Handel to view a sheet of music that he had transcribed in Jamaica and was dismayed when the visiting composer defaced the unique manuscript by putting a buttery muffin on it. Handel reportedly observed that ‘it put the poor old bookworm terribly out of sorts.’
L: Kensington Palace
King George II and Queen Caroline lived at Kensington Palace and were great patrons of the arts. Handel visited the palace often to teach the royal princesses the harpsichord.
M: Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens
Handel’s music was frequently played in London’s pleasure gardens, of which Vauxhall was the best known.
Music for the Royal Fireworks was rehearsed there a week before its premiere and attracted the biggest crowds ever seen at Vauxhall. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that the rehearsal ‘occasioned such a stoppage on London Bridge, that no carriage could pass for 3 hours’, which resulted in a ‘scuffle’ leaving some gentlemen wounded.
N: Susannah Cibber (Actress and singer 1714-1766)
Mrs Cibber sang the contralto arias in the premiere of Messiah in Dublin, 1742.
She was an actress and not a trained singer but Handel felt that Cibber’s ability to convey emotion and expression far made up for her vocal limitations. She had also recently suffered from a scandal in her private life that had seriously damaged her reputation but her delivery of the aria ‘He was despised’ was so well received that one member of the audience stood up and cried out ‘woman for this, be all they sins forgiven.’
By the time of her death she was the highest paid actress in London.
O: St George’s Hanover Square
St George’s Hanover Square was designed by the architect, John James as part of a parliamentary act to build more churches as the city expanded.
It was completed soon after Handel moved to Brook Street and became his local parish church where he regularly worshipped. Handel advised the church on their organ and their choice of organists.
Passers-by would often see Handel using the grand portico as a shelter from the rain whilst travelling to and from the theatre.