Handel in The Strand

Formerly situated just off The Strand in London in front of Christopher Wren’s architectural masterpiece St Clement Danes church, the Crown and Anchor Tavern seems an unlikely birthplace for a revolution in choral music. Then, as now, taverns (or public houses) were colourful meeting places for eating, drinking, animated discussion and occasionally brawls. In the eighteenth century it was common for the numerous clubs or societies to hold their weekly meetings in a particular tavern. So, the famous ‘Kit Kat Club’ of Whig politicians used to meet in Shire Lane, the ‘House of Lords Club’ made up of ‘the more dissolute sort of barristers, attorneys and tradesmen’ met at the Three Herrings on Bell Yard. The diversity of these clubs is astonishing – from the ‘Beefsteak Club’ meeting in Covent Garden devoted to drinking ‘interspersed with snatches of song and much personal abuse’ to a ‘Farting Club’ in Cripplegate and, convening in a tavern close to St Clement Danes, a ‘Man-Killing Club’ which did not admit anyone “who had not killed his man’.

St Clement Danes and the Crown and Anchor Tavern
St Clement Danes and the Crown and Anchor Tavern

Built on the Duke of Norfolk’s Strand estate, the Crown and Anchor Tavern was described in 1729 as “…a large and curious house, with good rooms and other conveniences fit for entertainments”. Presumably more salubrious than some of the other nearby watering-holes, the Academy of Music was founded here in 1710 and it was a popular location for music societies to hold private performances. And it was at the Crown and Anchor in February and March of 1732 that Bernard Gates, Master of the Chapel Royal, mounted three performances of Handel’s oratorio Esther (1718, revised 1732) – performances that would go on to transform the oratorio and British musical life.

George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1759), born in Halle in the Duchy of Magdeburg, was a prodigiously gifted composer who lacked neither industry nor ambition. Following a glittering few years in Italy which gave an ‘Italian polish’ to his music, he was offered the position of Kapellmeister to Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover (later King George I of England) in June 1710. He accepted the position on the condition that he was free to visit England; London was a rapidly growing commercial centre, flush with money and with an appetite for Italian opera which Handel was only too eager to satisfy.

He arrived there six months later, his reputation preceding him and he did not disappoint. Queen Anne was so impressed with his playing that she commissioned from him an Italian cantata for her birthday celebrations in February, passing over the Master of the Queen’s Musick, John Eccles. Eager to establish “English opera more splendid than her mother the Italian”, Aaron Hill, the young director of the Haymarket Theatre commissioned the magical opera Rinaldo, a task which Handel completed in just two weeks, outpacing even the librettist. In a pattern that would be repeated later, Handel extensively borrowed and reworked music from earlier compositions; even the music for the famous and moving aria Lascia ch’io panga was previously used in both Almira and Il Trionfo del Tempo.

But Rinaldo, with Handel directing from the harpsichord and wowing the crowds with his virtuoso playing and with the feted alto castrato Nocolò Grimaldi (known as ‘Nicolini’) as Rinaldo, it was a resounding success and all fifteen performances were sold out. Not all the special effects used on stage were however successful. Writing in The Spectator on the 6 March, Joseph Addison ridiculed the use of live sparrows for song birds in the first Act, noting “there have been so many Flights of them let loose in this Opera, that it is feared the House will never get rid of them … besides the Inconveniences which the Heads of the Audience may sometimes suffer from them”.

Rinaldo and Armida in the Magic Forest. Anton Kern (1734)
Rinaldo and Armida in the Magic Forest. Anton Kern (1734)

The runaway success of Rinaldo and his reception by the public probably convinced Handel (if indeed he needed convincing) that his fortunes lay in England. But before he returned to Hanover in June 1711, and as a foretaste of troubles ahead, Addison would write in The Spectator of 21 March “I cannot forbear thinking how naturally an Historian who writes two or three hundred years hence, and does not know the Taste of his wise Fore-fathers, will make the following reflection, ‘In the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century the Italian Tongue was so well understood in England, that Operas were acted on the publick stage in that Language’”.

Handel was given permission to return to London for the opera season in the autumn of 1712 but he clearly had plans to stay. When the War of the Spanish Succession was brought to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in April 1713, Handel was ready with a festive Te Deum and Jubilate he had written earlier in January. And he cleverly ingratiated himself by following the models of Purcell and setting the works in English but it was entirely his own style. It was a gamble which paid off: it was his Te Deum that was performed at St Paul’s Cathedral on 7 July to celebrate the Peace of Utrecht rather than that of the Chapel Royal’s own William Croft. For his efforts he was later awarded an annual pension from Queen Anne of £200 but not before being dismissed as Kapellmeister in Hanover. It was popularly thought that his dismissal was due to his absenteeism but it is also likely that it was for writing patriotic music for the ‘wrong side’.

When Queen Anne died in 1714, Handel’s former employer the Elector of Hanover became King George I. Handel did not write the music for his coronation, that honour went to the previously snubbed William Croft. Handel was however commissioned to write music for the King’s summer party on the Thames in July 1717. Often cited as an act of reconciliation between King George I and Handel, it has also been suggested that the perennially popular Water Music was composed ‘in order to drown out the torrent of abuse that would have greeted the new King, George I, during his first river progress’. Any frostiness between the two was short-lived and Handel was awarded an additional annual pension of £200, a tidy sum for the period.

The formation of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719 with Handel as the designated ‘Master of the Orchester with a Sallary’ [sic], gave Handel the opportunity to pursue his passion – writing operas. Set up as a joint stock company during the period of reckless speculation which became known as the ‘South Sea Bubble’ and with a £1,000 annual subsidy from George I, the aim of the Academy was to assemble the finest composers, artists and performers of Italian operas. Handel would procure the services of many of the leading (and exorbitantly paid) singers in Europe and it inevitably introduced rivalries, notably with the composers Atilio Arioso, Filippo Amadei and Giovanni Bononcini. But Handel reigned supreme – he wrote three masterpieces Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda between 1724 – 1725, followed in 1726 with Scipione, Alessandro and Admeto.

With the often strained relationships between Handel, his librettists and the highly temperamental and overpaid singers, these heady days could not last and it finally degenerated into farce. In June 1727 at a performance of Bononcini’s opera Astianatte attended by royalty, the tensions between the two prima donnas and their supporters boiled over. As the British Journal of 10 June reported “And notwithstanding the Princess Caroline was present. …(the two singers) pull’d each others’ coiffs (hair)…it is certainly an apparent Shame that two such well-bred ladies should call each other Bitch and Whore, should Scold and Fight like any Billingsgates (fishmongers)”.

Scene from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, Act 5. William Hogarth, 1728.
Scene from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Act 5. William Hogarth, 1728.

This cause célèbre was satirised in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), the music arranged by Johann Cristophe Pepusch with borrowings from Handel. This wildly successful ‘anti-opera’, set in ballad form, mercilessly mocked Italian opera and was the death knell for Handel’s winning streak. The Royal Academy folded in 1729 having produced 13 Handel operas and 8 by Bononcini. Handel nevertheless formed a new opera company in the same year known as the Second Royal Academy and continued to produce operas including Serse (1738), Imeneo (1740) and Deidamia (1741). Headaches were caused by a rival opera company, the Opera of the Nobility, set up by a group of nobles opposed to George II; it was fairly short-lived (1733 – 1737) but not before it poached some of Handel’s best singers and brought the famous Italian castrato singer Farinelli to the London stage for a whopping salary of £1,500 for a season.

Handel reluctantly threw in the towel and composed no further operas after 1741 but by then his interests lay elsewhere. The private performances of his oratorio Esther at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in 1732 were followed up with public performances later in the year to great acclaim. From then on, Handel would produce operas and oratorios side by side and, to attract larger crowds, he inserted instrumental concertos between the acts composed expressly for the occasion, notably his Organ Concertos and the 12 Concerti grossi op 6.

George Frederic Handel. Balthasar Denner (ca. 1726 - 1728)
George Frederic Handel. Balthasar Denner (ca. 1726 – 1728)

Handel as an entrepreneur found much in the oratorio form that was close to his heart and his wallet. With a decline in the interest in Italian opera, the oratorio nevertheless contained many of the same dramatic elements but with no expensive staging, props or rehearsals. It contained a choir which was integral to the drama and, importantly, the works were sung in English. It was Handel’s skilful updating of the traditions of Purcell with German contrapuntal writing which to this day make the oratorios so compelling and beloved of choirs and audiences alike and it gave Handel a new lease of life and popular acclaim. When Haydn visited London some 30 years after Handel’s death, the music scene was still dominated by performances of Handel’s oratorios and anthems.

Of the 27 oratorios Handel composed, his most successful collaboration was with the librettist Charles Jennens, first with the oratorios Saul (1738) and Israel in Egypt (1739), followed by settings of two Milton poems L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740) and his supreme masterpiece Messiah (1741) containing a masterly synthesis of biblical texts. In writing at his habitually fast pace, Handel continued to mine his earlier works for musical ideas and occasionally borrowed those of other composers but never to the detriment of the music. For instance, the famous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon is a reworking of a passage from the splendid Tafelmusik by his friend Tellemann; the chorus His Yoke is Easy from Messiah is a transformation of his Italian duet for two sopranos and continuo Quel fior che all’alba ride. The contemporary composer William Boyce was surely right when he said “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds”.

It has become something of a tradition in English Choral Societies to retire to a local hostelry after rehearsals to let off steam and to discuss the finer points of vocal colouring (or the lack of it) over a pint of beer. While draining their glasses, how many appreciate the role that drinking establishments played in the development of music, especially the music of Handel?

In the spring of 1772 at Crown and Anchor Tavern, Samuel Johnson delivered one of his famous put-downs to James Boswell. “Boswell: ‘You know, Sir, drinking drives away care and makes us forget what is disagreeable. Would not you allow a man to drink for that reason?’ Johnson: ‘Yes, Sir, if he sat next to you’”.


Kevin Painting

Published 27 March 2016 on primephonic