In my book, Then Sings My Soul, I told the remarkable story of how George Frideric Handel composed his famous oratorio, Messiah, in his London home in a time span of just about three weeks. Many people had thought Handel “past his prime,” but his friend, Charles Jennens, believed his best work was still ahead. “Handel says he will do nothing next winter,” said Jennens, “but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him…. The subject is Messiah.”
Receiving the Scriptures, Handel was so deeply moved he closed the door of his London home and wrote Messiah – the whole thing! — in less than a month.
Today with my son-in-law, Eric Olsen, I had the opportunity of visiting Handel’s London home and lingering in the room in which Messiah was written. The house is located at 25 Brook Street within walking distance of Westminster Abbey. It was in a new upper-middle class townhouse in 1723 when Handel, a bachelor, rented it. He was thirty-eight years old. He lived there the rest of his life, dying in the upstairs bedroom in 1759.
The basement contained the kitchen. The first floor has two rooms. One was an interior room with a little window that let in some light. This was his composition room, and the room in which he wrote Messiah. The second room was his rehearsal and performance room where he entertained small groups.
Up a narrow set of stairs are two more rooms. One was his bedroom (with a chamber pot at the foot of the bed; there was no running water). Next door was his dressing room. His small staff of servants lived in the attic.
Until the 1990s, this house was not available for touring; but now it’s been acquired by the Handel House Museum and guests can sit and ponder Messiah in the very room in which Handel feverously composed it in the early fall of 1741. When we arrived this afternoon, a guest musician was playing the harpsichord and it sounded lovely.
Handel wasn’t a perfect man. He certainly loved his food and drink, and he was known to be short-tempered and would sometimes curse (in several languages) at his soloists. But he was dedicated to his Lutheran faith. He wrote music for the Christian faith. And he worked with all his heart to establish a Foundling Hospital for newborn babies who were abandoned on the streets of London.
Handel’s House is off the beaten tourist path, but worth a visit to all those who love the heritage of Christian music or whose hearts are stirred by the Hallelujah Chorus.
PS – G.F. Handel had some interesting neighbors. The townhouse attached to his was the home of rock star Jimi Hendrix who lived there in the late 1960s. And a couple of blocks away I found FDR and Winston Churchill whispering secrets about World War II.