I can remember buying an LP of Handel’s Water Music as the front cover featured hills rolling back under a busy sky. It was so quintessentially English I thought Handel was born in Dorchester or Salibury but he was born in Germany. Here I am at his final home and death location in Mayfair in London. There’s a blue plaque on the wall at 25 Brook Street and one on the neighbouring property where Jimmi Hendrix lived (he was only there for a year so it doesn’t really count.) Probably the main building on the street is Claridges Hotel.
George was born in Saxony-Anhalt in Germany and he may have followed his dad who was a barber and a surgeon. However the moment his young fingers caressed an organ and harpsichord he was married to music. His dad didn’t agree with his son’s hobby and the poor lad had to steal into the attic to play a clavichord he had hidden up there. Away from the attic an organist recognised George’s wizardy and helped him grasp other instruments. By ten George had mastered the organ, harpsichord and violin. His dad still wasn’t happy though and he wanted his lad to be a lawyer. George acquiesced and attended university to study law but was so bored he left to become a musician. At just nineteen he moved to Hamburg where he joined an orchestra as a violinist and harpsichordist. Aged twenty he wrote his first two operas. He nearly didn’t reach his twenties though as he had a argument with fellow composer Johann Mattheson who stabbed him with this sword (the sword struck a button on George’s chest and stopped entry.)
To become an effective composer he went to Italy aged 22 and lived there for four years. Within three years he was famous. For two decades he lived out his personal dream composing music the world still has now. He was about 39 when he moved here to this house in Mayfair just a short walk from Hyde Park. The ground level of the terraces are shops now but they were houses when George moved here.
How did he move to England? He was the music director for a man called George, Elector of Hanover who would soon be King George I. He’d visited London for the first time in his late twenties putting on an opera (it was the first time an Italian opera had been performed in England.) He returned to Germany to work for Hanover Court, writing music. He was trying to learning English and the future King allowed him to make another visit to England. The English liked him and his rich patrons meant he was earning about £200 a year (about £20,000 in today’s money) One of his patrons was Queen Anne but when she died in 1712 his friend George the King. The King could have bollocked George for not returning to Germany but he loved his music so much he forgave him (and doubled his salary.) A few years later his salary increased again when he taught music to Queen Caroline’s daughter.
When George moved here it was newly built. Though he was not just well-known but famous across the world he couldn’t afford to buy it and rented it (for the next 35 years.) In England he became a director of the Royal Academy of Music and worked in the management of the King's Theatres and many of his operas were performed in the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
He lived here as a single man and was always single despite being handsome, enigmatic, successful and intelligent. He was probably homosexual and it’s thought he had a brief romance in Rome with a soprano when he was a young man. In total he wrote over 42 operas and many anthems and oratorios (music for a religious setting) the big famous one being Messiah.
Aged 44 he performed Scipio for the first time which is still used for the regimental slow march of the British Grenadier Guards. Knowing he’d never return to Germany he became a British citizen aged 45. Aged 46 he was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of King George II and Zadok the Priest has been sung at every coronation ceremony since. He was so adored Beethoven said "Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means."
Aged 54 he suffered a stroke and found his right arm wouldn’t work. He went to a health spa in Aix-la-Chapelle and six weeks later the arm was working. Aged 65 he was returning to London from Germany when his carriage overturned and he was badly injured. The beginning of the end came after an operation to remove a cataract (by a charlatan called Chevalier Taylor.) His sight didn’t improve and probably worsened to the point where he was completely blind by 1752. His final oratorio was Jephtha and he was going blind so quickly that he wrote on the score, "Reached here on 13 February 1751, unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.”
He died here in this house on Saturday 14th April 1759 aged 74, probably in his bed. The cause of death isn't known but some folk believe the failed eye operation lead to an infection. More than 3,000 mourners attended his funeral and he was buried with full state honours in Westminster Abbey. He left about £280,000 (in today’s money) to his niece. Other monies were diverted to 44 friends, servants, relations and charities. There would have been more but aged 55 he’d lost a mountain of money when an investment in operatic management company went soar. The house is now called Handel House Museum and it’s interior has been restored to look exactly how George would've kept it.
I looked up at the windows knowing George composed some of his most famous music up there (the big ones which will outlive us all are Messiah, Zadok the Priest and Fireworks Music.) What view did George have from this windows - a park, a lake, paddocks? Who visited here to see the world-famous composer? He was a big food lover and held many dinner parties here. I imagined him in one of those windows up there where he’d have kept musical instruments. For the last seven years he walked around in darkness but probably didn’t need to see an instrument to play it. There'll have been servants whether before and after the blindness who lived under the roof were garrets. What a shame none of them wrote a book about his internal life having had a ring-side seat. Around the house were about 80 paintings as George was an avid collector.
I walk down an alley to get to the back of the building and found an outdoor café and an unsmiling woman waiting to seat customers. I was the enemy - a man with a flask of coffee and sandwiches (all made for about 40p) - and didn’t stop for a £4.80 latte. I looked up at the second floor window which was George's bedroom and where he died. I did a salute and left.
If you want to visit the house (and Jimmi Hendrix's) the link is here...
Heading up Brook Street in Mayfair to George's final home...
How it looked in George's day...
...and looking in the other direction..
Around the back was an outdoor cafe. The house from the rear...