Temperamental. Showmanship. Resilient. Impactful. These are words often associated with the Baroque titan George Frederic Handel. In musical terms, his oeuvre consists of many operas and classical music pieces, which is celebrated as daring and pioneering. 25 Brook Street, his London residence where he spent the majority of his professional life, has undergone a metamorphosis into the Handel House Museum (HHM). The project is a thoughtful attempt to present a visual narrative of his living quarters and musical history. Visiting on a chilly October afternoon though, I discovered a rather sterile presentation of Handel’s London epoch. Let’s step inside.
A bit of context goes a long way……
Handel’s name precedes him. For those of us who are not devoted followers, his history and importance to the classical music world is a somewhat opaque subject. So why is he important? Should we consider the absence of a reason as a suitable excuse for not understanding this great man and his music? Helping us understand the genesis of his music ultimately makes us more enlightened listeners. For his is a story that embodies many virtues.
Handel moved to London in 1710, just as an emerging bourgeois demand for classical music was the catalyst for an inpouring of money. With a background in classical and modern languages, poetry, literature, mathematics, geography, ethics and the liberal arts; the talents of this polymath quickly fostered the support of the monarchs. His interests shaped his music; with dramatic yet contemplative pieces of Christian reflection. He set many pieces to opera (including an opera without acting called oratorio): Agrippina, Amadigi, Rinaldo, Saul, and Alexander’s Feast to name a few. His classical music pieces are equally renowned, particularly his Water Music and the landmark Messiah (which would change world culture and atittudes towards music). His ability to create dramatic tension by his feel for contrast and pace, traversing between different emotional states, all shaped his legacy of creating sophisticated musical narratives. He was a true patriarch of the London classical music scene in the eighteenth century; ultimately manifested in this role as Head of the Royal Music Academy.
What to expect……
Classical music is littered with famous composers, all vying for your attention. It’s natural that we gravitate towards the well-established names. Small, dedicated museums offer an excellent opportunity for a deeply immersive experience. The visual function of walking around a museum brings to life the environment in a way that a book cannot compete with, which makes it easier to consume the labyrinthine of history. I discovered the HHM a few years ago and scheduled a visit after much procrastination. I wanted to enrich my understanding of who he was and why it is an axiom that his music is considered a hallmark of the Baroque musical era.
After desperately trying to orientate myself with Google Maps, I finally located the entrance to the museum off the bustling main street. The beautiful stone-brick exterior presents a rather unassuming entrance. Upon entering the small reception I purchased my ticket and swiftly alighted the metal staircase. First impressions are seldom misguided. Museums rely on a strong visual narrative, which allows for introspection, reflection, and thus promotes learning. The unfortunate bland and formulaic format quickly dulled my senses and made this experience feel like a chore. The museum does all the right things, and there are a couple of high points. But a patron and a museum have a concord: the former must possess an open mind and be inquisitive, whilst the latter entertainingly provides information. This ensures an intellectual blanket that gently escorts you through. On this basis, I did not feel the HHM had fulfilled their end of the bargain.
After an extended period of being closed, the HHM was extensively renovated. It shows; but not in an overall positive way. It felt that this modernisation project, essential or otherwise, has in some way come at the expense of atmosphere. Aesthetics are a vital component to maintain a level of interest. The rooms are small and cover the first two floors. Some cold coloured walls host a few of Mr Handel’s original scores and also present a sample of portraits and pictures. Although there are interesting learning nuggets dotted around, it feels like there is no linearity to the flow of information.
As I wandered between the rooms, I felt a growing sense of artificiality. The majority of artefacts are well positioned but without a sense of connection between them. In one room a splendidly pristine harpsichord stood; in isolation surrounded by very little. It was difficult to get a sense of what transpired on those long evenings. Upstairs, an immaculate four poster bed with a bedpan and a splattering of ornaments; visually pleasing but again lacking in warmth. The majority of items here are replicas, so you cannot even draw some level of appreciation that these were HIS choices. The only piece that is believed to have been owned by Mr Handel himself is a bookcase. There is no doubt that the curators are passionate and loyal to the magnificent composer. Passion though seems to have been corrupted by the needs of a money-making business (or worse still a lack of ideas). The museum even suffers from an identity crisis: having been unified with Jimmy Hendrix who many years later rented the top floor. Adopting the new moniker ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’, a rigid dichotomy exists between classical and rock that never quite feels harmonious.
Despite this, I would be remiss not to mention some notable high points. The volunteer staff are incredibly helpful, polite, and have a wealth of knowledge to share. I was fortunate enough to chat with George; a wonderful elderly chap who was generous with his time and eager to add some much-needed emotion to the experience. I do recognise and applaud the efforts of the creators. They do, after all, have to make this a viable business in order to even offer this opportunity to the public. Sadly though it never quite delivers to its full potential. No doubt die-hard Handel advocates seize the chance to visit his historic residence, whilst musical ensembles enjoy the thrill of playing his masterpieces in the home where they were born. For the rest of us on the fringes though, this feels somewhat more uneventful.
The essentials: prices and standards……
HHM is located within a 5-10 minute walk from Bond Street station (Central & Jubilee lines). The price of admission is £10, which gains you access to both houses (Handel and Hendrix). There is a small gift shop upon exiting, which offer the usual souvenirs, DVDs and books. There are spotlessly clean lavatories, but I did not spy anywhere within the house for refreshments. I would also say that if you decide to bring your little cherubs with you, there are some costumes which may provide some modest entertainment.