Tuesday, 15 April 2008

London Blue Plaques at Handel House Museum

Keep your eyes fixed firmly ahead when walking around the streets of London and you miss some of its most beautiful buildings and also its history.

Lift your eyes up slightly and you may just spot one of the hundreds of blue plaques dotted around the city to commemorate the lives of famous people.

Just a few minutes walk away from the bustling shops of Oxford Street are two such plaques right next door to each other. 23 and 25 Brook Street in the heart of Mayfair were once the homes of Jimi Hendrix and G F Handel. Obviously these two great musicians were never actually next door neighbours but despite the 200 year gap in their residencies, the two blue plaques commemorate their time in London.

25 Brook Street is now home to the Handel House Museum. This charming Georgian townhouse has been restored to reflect how it looked in Handel’s lifetime.

I visited the Handel House Museum using the London Pass which gave me free entry on a day of London sightseeing. The German composer of great works such as the Messiah and Zadok The Priest lived here from 1723 until his death in 1759.

Not only did he write some of his greatest works here but he also held rehearsals for his operas and oratorios in the Performance room. These rehearsals were sometimes held in front of small audiences consisting of friends and patrons who often witnessed Handel impatiently swearing at the singers in several different languages!

On the day I visited I was pleasantly surprised to find a lady rehearsing on the stunning reproduction harpsichord. Thankfully for her (and me) there was no swearing composer in attendance so I was able to sit on the window seat and enjoy her beautiful playing undisturbed.

Apparently musicians are encouraged to use this unique space to rehearse so a free concert is not an unusual occurrence.

Although the furniture in the house is not original, they have gone to great pains to display either good reproductions or similar pieces from Handel’s lifetime. Despite this, the museum is well worth visiting for its historic value and for a sense of how this great composer lived.

There is currently a special Messiah exhibition being held at the museum which includes the earliest attempt to make a copy of the Messiah score. This 1868 manuscript is a pretty impressive sight! There are also headphones playing a recording of the Messiah which is a rather nice touch for the uninitiated and lovers of Handel’s music alike.

The exhibition continues in 23 Brook Street which was briefly the home of legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s. Here, there is one room dedicated to Handel’s manuscripts and his music (again, played through headphones for visitors to enjoy). The second room is labelled the “Activity Area” and contains a dressing up area with historical and opera costumes. A computer and keyboard are supplied to encourage kids to try their hand at composing. It would have been easy to dismiss this room as meant purely for children if I had not noticed the nod to Hendrix on one wall.

The Handel House Museum have acknowledged the fact that Jimi Hendrix once lived in this part of the museum by displaying some beautiful black and white photographs taken of the musician in January 1969 inside the Upper Flat of 23 Brook Street.

It may seem that these two iconic music figures have little in common but, other than living in neighbouring properties, I discovered another mutual achievement held by Handel and Hendrix. While many think of huge crowds of music lovers being the domain of rock stars such as Hendrix (think Woodstock), one would not envisage similar crowds in Handel’s time. Well think again. On 21st April 1749 Handel held a public rehearsal of “Music for the Royal Fireworks” at 11 o’clock in the morning which drew a crowd of 12,000 people and literally stopped traffic for three hours! Ever the businessman, Handel charged each attendee 2s 6d (12.5 pence) to hear his new work rehearsed in Vauxhall Gardens. It is hardly a surprise to know that Handel was rarely short of money and, on his death in 1759, left many thousands of pounds to his favoured charities.

The Handel House Museum may not be your typical tourist attraction but for an insight into the world of an 18th century composer and well known London social figure, it is a great way to spend a couple of hours. For those with more contemporary music interests it is an added bonus to tread the same floorboards once walked on by Jimi Hendrix.

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