Theatres, Churches, Taverns & Pleasure Gardens: 11 Places Where Handel Performed His Music
When Handel lived in Brook Street he was at the heart of a vibrant social and musical community. He was near palaces, theatres, taverns and churches, many of which housed his performances and still do to this day.
His career also took him across Germany, Italy and Ireland, where significant premieres can be listed. Featured in this article are some of the venues and places that hold a special significance in the narrative of Handel’s life and musical career.
You can also listen to the full playlist of accompanying music here or below:
1. Thomas Britton’s House, Aylesbury Street, London
Britton was a successful charcoal merchant in Clerkenwell with a keen taste for music and the arts. In 1678, he established a weekly concert series, which would later become a landmark for recitals in chamber music. The concert series ran for thirty-six years and was the longest-lasting in the late seventeenth century, making Britton one of the first concert promoters in the country. Britton converted the loft over his coal house in Clerkenwell into a music room, boasting with instruments including a harpsichord and a tiny organ, on which Handel was said to have played.
This Oboe Sonata gives a taste of the kind of chamber music Handel was composing around this time.
2. The Crown and Anchor Tavern, The Strand, London
Then, as now, taverns (or public houses) were popular meeting places for people to meet, eat, drink, discuss and sometimes take part in heated debates. In the eighteenth century it was common for numerous clubs or societies to hold their meetings in the same tavern each week. The Crown and Anchor was a popular location for music societies to gather and hold private performances. It was there that in February and March of 1732 Bernard Gates, Master of the Chapel Royal, mounted three performances of Handel’s oratorio Esther, and Handel himself is said to have attended at least one. These performances would go on to transform the oratorio and British musical life.
The Crown and Anchor is a good example of how drinking establishments in the eighteenth century played an important part in the development of music, making chamber music specifically, more accessible to wider audiences.
This version of the aria ‘O Jordan, Jordan, Sacred Tide’ from Esther was recorded by The Sixteen in its original 1718 version, so as close as possible to how these original performances may have sounded.
3. Oper am Gänsemarkt, Hamburg
The Oper am Gänsemarkt was a theatre in Hamburg built in 1678 after plans of Girolamo Sartorio at the Gänsemarkt square. It was the first public opera house to be established in Germany, unlike many other towns who favoured a court opera.
The premiere of Almira on the 8th January 1705 was such a success that it had to be repeated 20 times consecutively! As a result, the takings increased by 80% compared to the previous season. At only 18 years old, Handel saw first-hand the difficulties of financing a public opera house. He used this precious experience gained in Hamburg throughout his career in London.
4. Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, London
Originally called the Duke’s Theatre, one of the centres of 18th-century opera in London was originally created by converting Lisle’s Tennis Court, eventually becoming the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1695. 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, which was backed by King 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. The theatre presented the first paid public performances of Handel’s final two operas in 1740 and 1741. The theatre was demolished in 1848 and Lincoln’s Inn Fields is now the site of the Hunterian Museum.
The following aria is from Deidamia, Handel’s final opera:
5. The Queen’s Theatre (later King’s Theatre), Haymarket, London
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. This performance was remembered as quite a spectacular one. Indeed, actual sparrows were part of the scenography, which, unsurprisingly, left quite an impression on the audience! The sparrows were quite unruly and did not strictly stay perched on the trees, flying into the galleries and putting out the candles.
After moving to London permanently, Handel wrote over 25 operas for the theatre until around 1739 when the popularity and fashion for Italian opera dwindled.
The theatre has been home to record-setting musical theatre runs, including the current production, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, which has played continuously at Her Majesty’s since 1986.
6. Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, London
From 1785 to 1859, this site was a pleasure garden and one of the leading venues for public entertainment in London. 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.
It changed hands in 1842 and was permanently closed in 1859. The land was redeveloped in the following decades, but the original site was opened-up as a public park in the late 20th century. This was initially called Spring Gardens and renamed in 2012 to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens once again.
7. New Music Hall, Dublin
Dublin had an active theatre and concert life and Handel’s visit in 1741 coincided with the opening of a new concert venue, the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, where Handel gave two performances each of L’Allegro, Acis and Galatea and Esther between December 1741 and February 1742. His second series of concerts finished on April 7, 1742, but the eager audience prompted Handel to arrange the first performance of Messiah to take place then and there. And so, the much-awaited performance took place on the 13th April 1742.
Public rehearsals for Messiah generated great interest: the notice for the first performance urged ladies not to wear hoops and gentlemen to “come without their swords” to save space. With Handel both conducting and playing an organ, the Dublin audience expressed its “exquisite delight”.
The New Music Hall no longer exists but today you can see a stone arch which marks the location of the entrance to the former venue.
8. Covent Garden Theatre (now Royal Opera House), London
The first opera house on this site was constructed in 1732. Originally called the Theatre Royal, it served primarily as a playhouse for the first hundred years of its history.
In 1735, the first season of operas by Handel began. Many of his operas and oratorios were specifically written for Covent Garden and had their premieres there. After its roaring success in Dublin in 1742, Handel introduced Messiah at the Covent Garden theatre on 23 March 1743. It did not get the same warm reception with the London audience. The first performance was overshadowed by views expressed in the press that the work’s subject matter was too exalted to be performed in a theatre. In an attempt to deflect such sensibilities, in London Handel had avoided the name Messiah and presented the work as a “New Sacred Oratorio”.
From 1735 until his death in 1759, Handel gave regular seasons at Covent Garden. The final performance of Messiah at which Handel was present was at Covent Garden on 6 April 1759, just eight days before his death.
The current building is the third theatre on the site, following disastrous fires in 1808 and 1856 to previous buildings.
9. The Foundling Hospital, London
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.
The Foundling Hospital now houses the Foundling Museum, an independent charity that still holds Handel’s legacy.
10. Cannons, Middlesex
Cannons was a stately home in Little Stanmore, Middlesex, England. The Cannons estate was acquired by Chandos in 1713. The Duke of Chandos maintained a musical establishment, employing a substantial ensemble of musicians. Handel was by far the most famous musician associated with Cannons. Handel was based at Burlington House before becoming Cannons’ resident composer from 1717 to 1718. It has been suggested that the move to Cannons was related to the fact that in 1717 there was reduced demand for his services in London because operatic productions were experiencing a downturn.
The Chandos Anthems and other important works by Handel were conceived, written or first performed at Cannons.
The house was razed in 1747 and its contents dispersed.
11. St George’s Church Hanover Square, London
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 in 1723 and became his local parish church where he regularly worshipped. Handel advised the church on their organ and their choice of organists.
It has been written that passers-by saw Handel using the grand portico as a shelter from the rain whilst traveling to and from the theatre. Nowadays, the church still celebrates Handel’s life and music, hosting the Handel House Christmas Showcase and performances for the London Handel Festival.