Step into the world of composer George Frideric Handel with a visit to the delightful and evocative museum in his house in London’s Mayfair. Handel, who settled in London in 1712, made 25 Brook Street his home in 1723, until his death there in 1759. Some of his most famous works, including Messiah and the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest were composed in this house. The house was close to the theatres, music halls and churches where Handel’s music was performed. And in a nice twist of musical coincidence, legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix rented a flat at 23 Brook Street in 1968, thus putting him within a stone’s throw of London’s vibrant music scene. (The flat has been refurbished and is now used as the museum’s administrative offices).
Almost all of Handel’s works after 1723 were composed and partially rehearsed in the house, including many of his best-known operas, oratorios and ceremonial music, and from the ground floor of the house, Handel sold copies of his music, librettos and tickets to performances. The house was opened as a museum in 2001, an initiative of musicologist and Handelian the late Stanley Sadie, and comprises a suite of period rooms at 25 Brook Street together with exhibition rooms in No. 23.
The house has been beautifully and carefully restored, and the colour scheme throughout No. 25 – a deep bluish-grey, which subtly shifts according to the light and time of day – is the result of scraping back the accumulated layers of paint to reveal the interior decorations of Handel’s residency. Although the furniture in the house is not original, it is in keeping with the period, and adds an authentic flavour to the rooms. The upper floor of the museum contains Handel’s dressing room and his bedroom, and across the landing, in No. 23, is an exhibition space, housing changing displays and permanent showcases of Hendrix and Handel memorabilia: discs and album covers, photographs and scores (including a copy of one of Handel’s compositions made by Mozart). This room also contains a small antique harpsichord, similar to one Handel himself would played.
All around the house are paintings and prints, engravings and sculptures of Handel and his contemporaries, many of them the musicians with whom he worked, such as the acclaimed soprano Faustina Bordoni, which set the cultural and historical context of London life and society at the time. Other exhibits include correspondence by Handel himself, original manuscripts, and early editions of his operas and oratorios. Two AV displays, focusing on Handel’s music, its composition and orchestration, shed further light on Handel’s compositional and social life at Brook Street (while I was there, I caught an interesting film on how a harpsichord is played).
Downstairs is the “engine room” of the house: the room where Handel composed, complete with fine portraits of the composer and Charles Jennens, librettist of Messiah and a loyal champion of Handel and his music. An 18th century bentside spinet (baby harpsichord), similar to the spinet Handel is believed to have owned, sits snugly against one wall. The other room on this floor is the rehearsal and performance room, where Handel and his musicians and friends would have gathered to rehearse and hold informal performances. Handel, it is said, was intolerant of the diva-like goings-on of his female singers, and would grumble at the behaviour or calibre of his musicians. A beautifully decorated double-manual harpsichord, a modern copy of an 18th century instrument by the Flemish firm, Ruckers, has pride of place in this room, and is regularly used for recitals, rehearsals and demonstrations.
For anyone with an interest in Baroque music, this is a fascinating space as it gives one a true sense of how music was performed and enjoyed in a domestic setting in Handel’s time. Below the elegant sash windows, the traffic rumbles along Brook Street and Bond Street. Turn back into the room, and you are in Handel’s enchanting world again.