Christmas is upon us and many people – both locals and visitors – will go either to a church or concert hall to experience a performance of the Messiah written by George Frederick Handel, which is a highlight of the festive season. The Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742 and soon came to London. Handel had made his name by writing operas in the Italian style and putting them on his at Covent Garden theatre but a rival company was taking business from him and when his rivals brought the famous castrati Farinelli to London, Handel lost a good proportion of his audience and turned to write sacred music. After the success of the Messiah with the hallelujah chorus, he never composed another opera.
George Frederick Handel had been born in 1685 in Magdeburg in what is now Germany but was then a series of small connected states. One of these was Hanover, ruled over by an ‘Elector’ who was to become King George the First after the death of last Stuart monarch Queen Anne in 1714. Anne had endured seventeen pregnancies but none of her children had survived into adulthood and the throne passed from her to their cousins in the House of Hanover which was reliably Protestant. There were exiled Stuarts ready and willing to take over the throne but they were determinedly Catholic and, as such, unacceptable to the British Parliament who was determined to protect the Protestant hold on the country.
It is often thought that George Frederick Handel had arrived in England with the Hanoverian monarchs whereas he had actually come here in 1712 when Anne was still alive and been paid £200 a year by the Queen for composing music for royal occasions. King George the First had been displeased at losing Handel who composed his famous Water Music for the new king in order to win back his favour. It was first performed in 1717 on barges in the River Thames as the king sailed up from Whitehall to Chelsea. King George was so impressed with the music that he ordered it to be repeated three times on the return trip.
Handel’s position was now secure and he enjoyed the support of the next king, George the Second, who succeeded his father in 1727. All the Hanoverian kings were called George and they all got on badly with their sons. However, the one thing they agreed on was the beauty of Handel’s music and he settled in England and became a British national, later being buried in our national church Westminster Abbey.
There is a Handel museum in the heart of London in the house in Brook Street, Mayfair where the composer lived until his death in 1759. The guitarist Jimi Hendrix later lived in a flat next door and so these two famous musicians who came to England and were embraced by the locals are remembered together as part of Handel & Hendrix in London.
There is a tradition that audience members stand up for the Hallelujah chorus towards the end of Handel’s Messiah and this custom is still normally observed. It is said to have started when the king himself attended an early performance and was so moved by the resounding chorus that he stood erect until it had finished. If the monarch stands, then everybody else would be expected to do the same as no-one could risk sitting down when the king was standing. Alas, this is a well-known story (and one I often repeat when talking about the Georgian period) but there is no evidence that King George the Second ever saw a performance of the Messiah – or that he stood up during it This does not stop Blue Badge Tourist Guides repeating the story, however, and it certainly does not stop audience members continuing to stand as the climax of the greatest work by our adopted composer George Frederick Handel approaches.