Michael Jackson: On the Wall

“I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had a chance to talk to him, I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is, not about who he went out with last night or why he decided to sit out in the sun for so long.”
– Michael Jackson, 1993

Coinciding with what would have been his 60th birthday, the National Portrait Gallery presents their exhibition of the year, Michael Jackson: On the Wall. With number one hits from age 11, Jackson is known not just for his music but his choreography, dancing ability, fashion and humanitarian efforts, too. Despite his death in 2009, Jackson continues to be a major influence on contemporary art.

Before anyone gets excited about a Michael Jackson exhibition, it needs to be noted that this is not a biographical display of the life of the “King of Pop”, nor are there any memorabilia or personal artefacts. On the Wall is about artwork and Jackson’s influence on 48 different artists from different generations and areas of the world.

 

 

On entering the exhibition, a gallant prince on horseback almost jumps off the wall taking the attention away from Keith Haring’s (1958-90) untitled abstract portrait of Michael Jackson hanging on the left of the entrance. On closer inspection, the figure turns out to be Jackson, imitating the Spanish king in Peter Paul Rubens‘ (1577-1640) The Restoration of Philip II on Horseback (c1630). The artist, Kehinde Wiley (b1977), is known for his paintings of African-Americans, which attracted Jackson’s attention in the early 2000s. Becoming his final commissioned portrait, Jackson asked Wiley to paint him in the typical style of European art history in order to challenge the stereotypes surrounding black people in the United States. This was an issue, as the exhibition highlights, which Jackson felt strongly about.

Although it is almost a decade since Michael Jackson’s death on 25th June 2009, artists are still enamoured with his compassion for those treated unfairly and the way [he] makes [them] feel. The year after his death, the diverse artist Lyle Ashton Harris (b1965) produced Black Ebony II (2010), which hangs close by the regal portrait of the “King of Pop”. “I remained intrigued by the vulnerability, the genius that was Michael Jackson and how his global presence still haunts the contemporary phantom scene.”

 

Some of the works have been purposely created by artists for this exhibition, for example, Graham Dolphin’s (b.1972) walls of record sleeves. Dolphin is well-known for his text art in which he hand writes minuscule words on top of pre-existing materials. In this instance, he has collaged together multiple sleeve issues of Michael Jackson’s albums Thriller and Off the Wall – of which the exhibition’s title is a parody. These are part of an ongoing series of work in which the artist explores the themes of fandom and idolatry. Across the sleeves, Dolphin has painstakingly written the complete lyrics of Jackson’s songbook.

After an introduction to a few examples of artwork inspired by Michael Jackson, the exhibition begins to follow Jackson’s timeline from his emergence into the world of fame through to his final years. Although the focus is mostly on the art, details about the singer are included in written descriptions, which help to explain the purpose and intention of each artist.

Michael Jackson was born on 29th August 1958 in Gary, Indiana, the eighth child of a working-class African-American family. His father, Joseph Walter Jackson (1928-2018), formed a band with his eldest sons, Jackie (b1951), Tito (b1953) and Jermaine (b1954), which Michael and another brother, Marlon (b1957) joined in 1964 as backing musicians on congas and tambourines. Michael was only 6 years old when he joined what would become known as the Jackson 5. The next year he was promoted to lead singer, a position he shared with Jermaine. By the tender age of 11, Michael and his brothers were already at the top of the charts with singles such as ABC and I’ll Be There.

 

During the 1970s, Michael Jackson grew from a child performer to a teen idol. Breaking away from his brothers as a solo artist, becoming the first black musician to receive worldwide fame. With studio albums and singles being released at great speed, Jackson was quickly becoming one of the most idolised musicians, winning award after award with barely a break in between, after all, you don’t stop ’til you get enough.

The National Portrait Gallery displays a handful of drawings the British painter Dawn Mellor (b1970) drew during her teenage years. These are what today’s youth call “fanart”, in which they copy pictures of their favourite stars or create imaginary scenarios derived from works in which the celebrity has been involved. Mellor also doodled portraits of the athlete Carl Lewis (b1961) and comedian Richard Pryor (1940-2005) who, like Jackson, were transcending barriers that usually limited African Americans.

Michael Jackson’s face became an iconic image after Andy Warhol (1928-87) created a series of silkscreen prints in 1984 to accompany an article in Time Magazine titled “Why He’s A Thriller”. Warhol was an avid Jackson fan and collected many of his records; commodities, such as look-a-like dolls; and newspaper clippings about the star.

As well as his physical appearance, fashion preferences and song lyrics, Jackson was also known for being a dancing machine. Some of these moves are difficult to replicate, although, many have now conquered the “moonwalk”. A more challenging dance move introduced by Jackson is “the freeze” in which he balanced on the very tip of his toes. Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom (b1984), who recently graduated from the Royal Acadamy Schools, produced a tribute to the “King of Pop” by replicating the famous “freeze” with latex balloons, ribbons and penny loafer shoes. A version of this sculpture is situated in the centre of one of the rooms in the exhibition, the shoes standing on their toes, held up by the balloons. Not only does this sculpture honour the late singer, it has metaphorical connotations too.

“… the replacement of the balloons as they individually deflate plays on the continuous work and effort in upholding an admired public image.”
– Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom

 

Living in the limelight has its positive and negative aspects. Being one of the most famous black men in the world, Michael Jackson was in a position to be to heard and listened to by millions of people. He advocated for equal rights, insisting that it did not matter if you were black or whiteJackson visited sick children around the world, giving them gifts and a moment to remember on Michael’s Heal The World Campaign in the 1990s. He turned his 3000-acre estate, Neverland Valley, into an amusement park with two zoos containing animals such as llamas, tigers, giraffes and elephants, and invited disadvantaged children to enjoy themselves.

Faith Ringgold (b1930), known for her narrative quilts, has been an activist in various feminist and anti-racism groups since the 1970s. One of her “story quilts”, which features in this exhibition, contains a figure of Michael Jackson in its centre. Her aim was to denounce racism and discrimination through her artwork.

“Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be.”
– They Don’t Care About Us, Michael Jackson

Jackson wrote songs such as They Don’t Care About Us and Earth Song as a means of getting the message across about the inequalities in the world. Some people loved him for this, however, others began to despise him. This, unfortunately, kept Jackson under critical scrutiny, which anyone would find difficult to bear.

Michael Jackson could be recognised everywhere he went, his face was easy to remember. His features were so unique that he could be identified by his eyes only, as emphasised in Mark Ryden’s (1963) cover work for the album Dangerous (1991). Jackson’s eyes can be seen peeking through a mask-like shape at the top of the composition. Ryden was inspired by various pre-existing ideas including The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), and the photograph Cecil Beaton (1904-80) took of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation.

Ryden’s purpose for including so many elements in his composition, for instance, a fairground ride and a host of dressed-up animals, was to convey a cluttered mind. From talking to Jackson, Ryden determined that the singer’s mind was a jumble of memories or a fun house, the latter also being an allusion to Neverland Valley. This also suggests Jackson’s frustration and loss of childhood due to becoming famous at such a young age. Instead of running around with other six and seven-year-olds, he was already having to keep up his demeanour for his adoring fans.

As befalls many a celebrity, Michael Jackson began having issues with his physical appearance, particularly his nose. His dissatisfaction also stemmed from his childhood and the way he was treated by his father. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Jackson admitted to “his tendency to remain hyper-compliant” in order to avoid a tirade or abuse. Allegedly, Joseph Jackson would whip his son and tell him that he had a fat nose. This, ultimately, led to several nose jobs that drastically altered Michael Jackson’s appearance. A thinner nose noticeably altered the overall shape of Jackson’s face, as shown in a posthumous painting by a French street artist, alias Mr Brainwash (1966).

 

Unfortunately, the National Portrait Gallery almost glosses over Michael Jackson’s final years, particularly his deteriorating appearance. Whether or not people believe the claim that he had only had a couple of nose jobs, it is clear that Jackson no longer looked like the young African American boy he was back in the day. The Gallery also fails to comment on the skin disease with which Jackson supposedly suffered. Vitiligo is a disease in which the melanocytes or pigment cells of the skin are destroyed in certain areas, thus causing the skin to appear white. This can affect people of all skin colours, however, the darker the skin, the more noticeable it becomes. It is unlikely to cause the entire skin to become white, which is why many people did not accept Jackson’s claims.

Maggi Hambling’s (b1945) portrait of Michael Jackson is one of the very few visual references to his change in skin tone. The pop star was reportedly diagnosed with vitiligo in 1984, however, there were also rumours he had been skin bleaching. Jackson’s biographer, J. Randy Taraborrelli, also states that he suffered from lupus, which made his skin extremely sensitive to light. Despite these statements, many people refused to believe that Jackson was ill, however, vitiligo was diagnosed in his autopsy report.

With all the negative press, it is no wonder Michael Jackson began to hate the sight of the man in the mirror, however, he still had many loyal fans throughout the world. In 2017, Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming (1960) painted a portrait in memory of Michael Jackson. It is interesting to discover how wide a fanbase Jackson had, reaching as far as Asia where the Western world has less of an impact.

 

Some fans revered Michael Jackson to the point that he became more than human in their eyes. One fan was the American commercial photographer David LaChapelle (b1963) who believed Jackson’s life reached almost Biblical proportions. This is a controversial subject that many may not agree with or even be offended by, however, LaChappelle saw many similarities between Jackson and Jesus Christ.

The photographer believes “we persecuted him”, listening to malicious gossip and rumours. Whilst Jackson was trying to do good, helping disadvantaged children and improving opportunities for African Americans, the world painted him as bad or even a smooth criminal, accusing him of child abuse, vanity and so forth.

LaChappelle created a series of manipulated photographs in homage to Michael Jackson, positioning him in in front of different backgrounds, adding wings and other figures to make him look like an angel that had defeated the devil or a man who had been crucified.

Although these ideas are rather extreme, they emphasise the serious allegations inflicted upon Jackson compared with the way LaChappelle wishes the musician could be remembered. As Jackson once said, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.” LaChappelle is trying to preserve Michael Jackson’s dignity for his fans and his family.

At Michael Jackson’s memorial service, the Reverend Al Sharpton (b1954) also tried to preserve Jackson’s memory. He wanted Jackson’s children, Michael Joseph Jr (b1997), Paris-Michael (b1998), and Prince Michael II “Blanket” (b2002), to know that “there was nothing strange about your daddy, it was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”

 

Other artworks in Michael Jackson: On the Wall included videos, music clips, sculpture and painting. A particularly amusing exhibit was Michael Lee Bush’s “dinner jacket”, which was purposely made to look similar to clothing Jackson often wore. Bush was Jackson’s costume designer for 26 years, but when he was asked to replicate Jackson’s dinner jacket, he played with the word “dinner” by adding lots of cutlery over the chest and back.

The exhibition culminated in Candice Breitz’s (b1978) video installation of a number of German-speaking Michael Jackson fans singing Thriller a capella. The purpose of this project is not entirely clear and is quite frankly a disappointing end to the overall exhibition. Michael Jackson: On the Wall started off promising but lost strength towards the end. It almost felt as though the curator was struggling to fill the final rooms.

Nonetheless, On the Wall is primarily an art exhibition and, therefore, achieves what it set out to do: reveal how Michael Jackson influenced art. Jackson fans, however, may be disappointed with the lack of information about his life as his career grew and the disregard for his final struggles.

 

Viewing a life through works of art is an interesting idea but a more appropriate approach for a singer would be to hear their life through music. Since 2009, fans have had the opportunity to learn a little about Michael Jackson by listening to his music at the Lyric Theatre on Shafestbury Avenue in a 2-hour plus production of Thriller Live. Named after Jackson’s best selling album of all time, the show is currently the 15th longest running show in the West End as well as the longest running at the Lyric Theatre, which opened in 1888.

The non-stop hit songs include titles by the Jackson 5, such as Rockin’ Robin and Blame it on the Boogie, as well as all of the Michael Jackson favourites from all decades of his career. Dancers and singers perform the songs dressed to look like Michael Jackson and his backing group whilst the audience cheers and joins in, encouraged to stand up by the lead vocalist.

Although too loud for some people, Thriller Live is perfect for Michael Jackson fans, especially those who never got a chance to see him live in concert. The vocals and dance moves mimic the “King of Pop”, providing a perfect example of what Jackson usually provided for his audience.

Whilst Thriller Live is targetted at Michael Jackson fans, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is supposed to attract anyone interested in art, however, it has a greater appeal for those who loved his music. To fully appreciate both the exhibition and the stage production, the audience needs to be familiar with the “King of Pop”, his music history, and the causes he felt strongly about.

The National Portrait Gallery will be hosting Michael Jackson: On the Wall until 21st October 2018. Tickets range from £15.50 to £22 and advanced booking is advised for those who are not members of the gallery. Tickets for Thriller Live start at £32 and can be purchased online.

Note: phrases in bold allude to song titles 

Handel & Hendrix in London

Separated by a wall and 200 years are the homes of two musicians who chose London and changed music.

There could not be a more musically contrasting pair than George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, yet, there is so much that ties the two together. Situated in Mayfair, London are the former homes of these two world famous musicians. Now a museum, numbers 25 and 23 Brook Street were once inhabited by people who brought new tastes in music to the British capital. Handel & Hendrix in London (previously Handel House Museum) contains a set of restored rooms in both buildings that reveal the contrasting ways in which both Handel and Hendrix lived.

275px-london_003_hendrix_and_handel_housesThe museum was opened in 2001 by the Handel House Trust after the careful restoration of the rooms in 25 Brook Street to their original Georgian decor. A room in the house next door was used as an exhibition space, however, in 2016, the museum took the plunge and expanded to incorporate the reconstructed upper floors of 23 Brook Street, Jimi Hendrix’s home. Despite being an unlikely pairing, the museum has been a great success with thousands of fans and visitors attending every year.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) moved into 25 Brook Street shortly after it was built in 1723 at the age of 38. Born in Germany, he had already been living in London for thirteen years, however, this was the first home he could call his own, although, he only leased it because foreigners could not buy property at that time. (For more information about Handel’s life, click here.) For Handel, his new home was in a perfect location due to its closeness to the theatres where his musical works were being performed. It was also close to the newly built church, St George’s Hanover Square, which Handel regularly attended after it opened the following year.

Entering the Georgian house from the rear, visitors come across the ticket desk in what would have once been the basement of the house. This area has not been reconstructed for the museum but would have once held the kitchen. The ground floor, now owned by the luxury leather goods shop, Aspinal of London, was where Handel once sold copies of his music and tickets for his concerts. The very top of the house contained a garret in which the servants had their quarters, leaving the floors in between for Handel’s personal use.

 

The museum has expanded the buildings in order to create exhibition space, so the first room visitors see that actually belonged to Handel was his Composition Room on the first floor. Within these walls, as the name of the room implies, is where Handel composed his music. He spent an astonishing amount of time in here, rapidly writing an entire opera in 40 days, then promptly starting on another one. His quickest creation, which no doubt was composed in this room, was Messiah, one of the most inspiring oratorios in the world. Within a mere 24 days, Handel had composed the music that made up this phenomenal composition, culminating in 53 pieces of music that last approximately two hours and 40 minutes.

The room next door at the front of the house was Handel’s Music Room. Containing a harpsichord, this was naturally where Handel rehearsed his compositions with various musicians and singers. It was officially a dining room, so may also have contained a table where he would entertain his friends and patrons over various culinary delights. He would also hold small performances of his new music before they opened to the public at the theatres nearby.

 

On the second floor are the two most private rooms in the building. One was Handel’s Dressing Room, which, when the house was built, was intended as a second bedroom. Having no family of his own, Handel was able to use this room to store his clothing and powdered wigs. His manservant, Peter le Blond, would have helped Handel dress in the typical Georgian fashions, a combination of a shirt, cravat, waistcoat, tailcoat and breeches.

Finally, the front room on the second floor reveals where Handel would have slept. This was both used as his bedroom and bathroom since Georgian houses did not contain indoor plumbing. A jug of water and a basin would have sat on a dresser from which to wash in and a stool designed to contain a chamber pot was also close at hand.

It is presumed this room was where Handel died on 14th April 1759, however, the bed is a reproduction of a typical 1720s four-poster bed. The length of the bed is noticeably shorter than those of today. This is because it was recommended that people slept sitting up in order to aid digestion. Being a big lover of food, it is likely Handel slept upright on doctor’s orders. The other furniture in this room, for instance, the dressing table and mirror, whilst not Handel’s, are genuine objects from the 1700s.

The third floor of Handel’s house has been converted into an exhibition space for his musical neighbour, Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). With a brief history of the rock guitarist and an insight into his life in London, the exhibition prepares visitors to step from the Georgian building into a completely different world.

Only two rooms of 23 Brook Street have been reconstructed for the museum: the bedroom and the Record Room (originally a storeroom). In July 1968 when Hendrix and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham moved in, the house had been split into several apartments. Hendrix’s began on the third floor and contained a bathroom on the level above. Whilst small, this was the first place Hendrix could call his own, similarly to Handel 200 years earlier.

Johnny Allen Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington in 1942 where he discovered his talent for music, picking up the guitar at age 15. After a brief stint as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, the talented guitarist, now known as Jimi, began touring as a backing band with various performers, including the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. It was not until he moved to England that he really made a name for himself. With Chas Chandler, the bassist of the Animals as his manager, Jimi quickly earned himself three UK top hits: Hey JoePurple Haze and The Wind Cries Mary.

Hendrix liked to entertain his friends in his personal flat, also using it as a base to give interviews and pose for photo shoots. It is many of these photographs that helped the museum curators recreate the colourful bedroom Hendrix spent most of his time in. Many of the original furnishings had been removed when Hendrix and Etchingham split up in 1969, the rest being removed after Hendrix’s death in 1970 from asphyxia as a result of drug consumption. Fortunately, the photographs and Etchingham’s memories were sufficient enough to reconstruct his 1960s-style home.

The majority of the items in Hendrix’s bedroom are replicas recreated using the photographs and knowledge of the typical styles of the 1960s. This may come as a disappointment to some fans, however, there is an oval mirror on the wall, which did belong to Hendrix and hangs in the exact same place where he would stare into it often. Although it may not look like much, this was one of Hendrix’s favourite possessions. The only reason it has survived is that Etchingham stole it after their break up.

The photoshoots revealed that Hendrix was fond of batik wall hangings and Persian rugs. It is said that he owned more than he had space for, therefore, frequently swapped them around. The museum displays three examples of the type of rugs he was passionate about on the bedroom floor and a silk hanging, replicating the one Hendrix owned, hangs on the wall above the bed.

Photographs of Hendrix’s vibrant bedspread were taken to the textile specialist Wallace Sewell (founded in 1992) who painstakingly wove an identical spread specifically for the museum. The Dog Bear that sits on a chair to one side of the room was recreated by Judy Roose, a volunteer at the museum, however, the original was made and given to Hendrix by a fan.

mainThe furniture, including Hendrix’s iconic chair, are all typical of the 1960s and match those that featured in various photo shoots. Visitors are welcome to sit in the chair and strike one of Hendrix’s many poses.

To make the room feel more authentic, as though Jimi Hendrix has just left and will return soon, a model of his guitar lies on the bed and a photocopy of handwritten lyrics rest on the bedside table.

The back bedroom, which Hendrix used as a storeroom, has not been restored with its 1960s decor. This is most probably due to the lack of photographs and the fact that everything in it was in storage, therefore, not much to look at. Instead, this room has been retitled the Record Room, displaying a number of LP sleeves that Hendrix once owned. Although he was famous for Rock and Roll, Hendrix listened to a wide range of genres. He owned over 100 titles and was particularly inspired by electric blues.

Many of the records in Hendrix’s collection were purchased at the One Stop Record Shop in South Molton Street, of which he was a frequent customer. Most interestingly, amongst his set were a number of classical pieces, including Water Music and two versions of Messiah, thus linking him to the former occupant of the house next door.

When not in use, Hendrix kept his guitars in the storeroom. On display is Hendrix’s second-hand Epiphone FT79, which he bought in New York for $25. He brought it with him to the UK and used it to compose new songs and arrangements. Hendrix always used this guitar first, perfecting the notes, before transferring to an electric guitar.

In comparison to Hendrix’s lavishly decorated bedroom, Handel’s house comes across as bland and unexciting. Since Handel assembled a large collection of art throughout his life, the walls of his house were most likely a monotonous grey, allowing the paintings to stand out for themselves. Handel’s House is almost as much an art gallery as it is a museum, with several paintings and etchings of Handel, his contemporaries and other connections to his life. These would not have been owned by Handel but they look at home here in the house of “the most excellent Musician any Age ever produced.”

Hanging on the wall in the Composition Room is a large portrait of Handel painted by Thomas Hudson (1701-79). Whilst the painting is a splendid work of art, it is the ornate frame that entices the viewer. This sumptuous frame features sculpted bulrushes, a plant associated with the Biblical prophet Moses who’s mother used bulrushes to hide him from the Egyptian Pharoah. The significance of this frame is to highlight Handel’s involvement with the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children, of which he was elected as governor. He also donated Messiah to the hospital to use for benefit concerts, bequeathing it to them in his will so that the concerts could continue annually after his death, which they did until 1775.

A couple more portraits of Handel can be found throughout the house including a copy of the composer in informal attire by Philip Mercier (1689-1760). Here, Handel poses next to a harpsichord, pen in hand with the latest music he is composing in front of him. The original painting can be seen at Handel House in Halle, Germany.

Other depictions include a bust showing Handel as a middle-aged, balding man, which was once owned by King George III who boasted that Handel was his favourite composer; and a caricature, The Charming Brute (1754), depicting Handel as a pig playing the organ whilst surrounded by food. It is believed that Handel was a gluttonous man who liked to eat an abundance of rich and expensive delicacies, which was evidenced by his protruding stomach.

water_3Several well-known faces from the 18th century are also hanging on the walls of Handel’s house including Louis-François Roubiliac (1695-1762) who sculpted a statue of Handel that can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Thomas Arne (1710-78), the composer of Rule Britannia. Other images show the buildings of Georgian London that Handel frequented and a watercolour drawing of 25 Brook Street by John Buckler (1770-1851) records what Handel’s house looked like in 1839 before the top floor was transformed from a garret into a full-height attic.

Since the two musicians are so contrasting in style and personality, it is difficult to compare the two sides of the museum. Whilst Hendrix’s flat is more aesthetically involved, the history on Handel’s side is much more impressive. It is likely that visitors come with the intent of seeing the home of one past inhabitant but enjoy discovering the other as well.

Often, musicians and singers can be found in the Music Room rehearsing for various performances. Visitors are welcome to sit and listen to them if they wish. At other times, the museum puts on concerts for which tickets can be bought in advance.

Handel and Hendrix in London is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am until 6pm. For £10 (£5 for children), visitors have access to both Handel’s house and Hendrix’s flat. With a lift to each floor, the building is fully accessible for disabled visitors. For more details, see https://handelhendrix.org

 

Handel with Care

“… But Handel’s harmony affects the soul,
To sooth by sweetness, or by force controul;
And with like sounds as tune the rolling spheres,
So tunes the mind, that ev’ry sense has ears.
When jaundice jealousy, and carking care,
Or tyrant pride, or homicide despair,
The soul as on a rack in torture keep,
Those monsters Handel’s music lulls to sleep.”

an anonymous poem in The Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1740

Being a posthumously famous artist, musician, performer and so forth is a peculiar sentiment. A name may be remembered for hundreds of years, a painting may be viewed centuries after the artist’s death, people may have favourite musicians who lived long before their birth, but is it the person who is famous or the legacies they have left behind? One of the most famous British composers is Handel, a German-born Baroque musician who lived in the 18th century. Most people can name at least one or two of his compositions, but how many can claim to know about the man himself? How many people can explain how a German child grew up to be the highly acclaimed British composer? Handel’s name has survived through his music but his personal history is equally worthy of praise.

george_frideric_handel_by_balthasar_denner

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner c1726-28

Georg Friedrich Händel was born on 5th March 1685 (incidentally the same year as J.S. Bach and Scarlatti) in the Prussian, now German, town Halle-upon-Saale to Georg Händel and Dorothea Taust. Little is known about Handel’s early life but documents prove that he was the first son of his father’s second marriage, discounting a still-birth, and he was followed by two sisters, Dorothea Sophia, born 6th October 1687, and Johanna Christiana, born 10th January 1690. His maternal grandfather was the Lutheran pastor of the Church of St. Bartholomew in Giebichenstein, north Germany, and it is likely that this had some influence on his upbringing.

Information about Handel’s childhood has to rely upon Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel written by his biographer John Mainwaring (1724-1807), although there are many discrepancies within the text. For instance, Mainwaring claims that Handel’s father was dismayed with his son’s penchant for music and “took every measure to oppose it”, going as far as to ban musical instruments from the house and refusing to let Handel visit anyone in possession of one. The biographer tells a romantic story about Handel’s secret visits to the attic where he had hidden a clavichord, which he played whilst his family were asleep. Some historians claim this to be little more than “poetic imagination”, for Handel must have been receiving some sort of musical education for him to be eventually noticed by Johann Adolf I, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels (1649-97).

At about eight years old, the young Handel accompanied his father on a trip to Weissenfels where he sneaked over to the organ in the palace chapel of the Holy Trinity and proceeded to play. His impromptu performance was overheard by Duke Johann Adolf I who persuaded Handel’s father to allow his son to receive musical instruction. Back home, his father sought out the organist at the Halle parish church, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712), and Handel’s musical education began. He learnt to play the violin as well as the organ, yet continued to practice on the clavichord/harpsichord. It is also noted that Handel developed a love for the oboe, which is evidenced by the number of pieces he would later compose for this instrument.

Due to his late father’s wishes that he should become a lawyer, Handel enrolled at the University of Halle in 1702, however, he never completed the course. Despite being Lutheran, Handel accepted the position of organist at the Calvinist Cathedral in Halle until mid-1703 when he moved to Hamburg. Whilst he was in the city, Handel joined the orchestra for the theatre Oper am Gänsemarkt as a violinist and harpsichordist. It was during this period that Handel composed his first two operas, Almira (full title: Der in Krohnen erlangte Glücks-Wechsel, oder: Almira, Königin von Castilien) and Nero; Handel was only 19-years old.

In 1706, Handel was invited to Italy; whilst it is uncertain who summoned him, it is likely to have been a member of the Medici family. During his time in Florence and Rome, Handel wrote several compositions, including sacred music for the Roman clergy, cantatas, oratorios, and operas. Yet, Handel’s time here was short, by 1710 he had become the Kapellmeister to the future king of England, Prince George the Elector of Hamburg (George I).

By the time he was 27-years old, Handel had found a permanent home in London. He achieved great success with his opera Rinaldo, the first opera in Italian to be performed in the British capital, which the Victoria and Albert Museum celebrated last year (2017) in their exhibition on opera. The composer caught the attention of Queen Anne who supplied him with a yearly stipend of £200 after he composed the sacred choral composition Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate (1713) in her honour. For the next five years, however, Handel gave up composing operas, although his famous Water Music proved popular. 

508px-georg_friedrich_hc3a4ndel_3

The Chandos Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel, attr. James Thornhill, c1720

In 1717, Handel became the resident composer at the stately home Cannons in Little Stanmore, Middlesex, where he composed his 12 Chandos Anthems for his patron, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (1673-1744). Handel also wrote his first English-language pastoral opera, or “little opera”, Acis and Galatea (1718), which became the most performed of his works during his lifetime. The music was set to a text written by John Gay (1685-1732), a poet and dramatist who also penned The Beggars Opera (1728).

During his residence at Cannons, the Royal Academy of Music was founded by a group of aristocrats who sought musicians and composers to perform and write operas and such forth. Handel was one of three leading composers commissioned by the academy, the others being Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729) and Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), and was also appointed as Master of the Orchestra. One of Handel’s commissions was to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of George II: The King Shall Rejoice, My Heart is Inditing and Let thy Hand be Strengthened, and Zadok the Priest. The latter has become one of Handel’s best-known works and has been played at every British monarch’s coronation since.

Unfortunately, the Royal Academy of Music soon folded but Handel continued composing and sought a venture elsewhere. In 1729, Handel became the joint manager of The Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket (now Her Majesty’s Theatre) alongside the leading impresario John James Heidegger (1666-1749). Works by Handel were already popular at this theatre and between the years 1711 and 1739, over 25 of his operas premiered there.

Handel could be a very cantankerous man and earned a reputation for his inexhaustible vocabulary of swear words in five different languages. Whether or not triggered by the stress of opera falling out of fashion, thus causing Handel to become bankrupt, he suffered a stroke in April 1737, aged 52, resulting in temporary loss of movement in his right hand. Unable to perform, Handel sought treatment in Aachen, a spa in Germany, where he made an astonishingly quick recovery. He continued writing operas despite his ill-health, however, by 1741 and still losing money, he decided to give up in favour of English oratorios.

Unfortunately, Handel’s oratorios, many of which were based on biblical passages, caused controversy and outrage throughout the predominantly Protestant country. The Church was shocked about God’s word being spoken in the theatre in such a fashion causing one minister to exclaim: “What are we coming to when the will of Satan is imposed upon us in this fashion?”

Angry Christians sabotaged many of the performances of Handel’s oratorios, something which deeply saddened the Lutheran composer who was profoundly religious himself. The author John Hawkins (1719-89) commented that Handel “would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification.” Not to be defeated, Handel persevered with his compositions, however, he was at risk of being thrown into debtor’s prison. Depressed, his health deteriorating and his career on the line, Handel was losing hope of any future successes, however, his greatest legacy was still to come.

charles_jennens

Charles Jennens by Mason Chamberlin, mid-18th century

In 1741, friend and librettist, Charles Jennens (1700-73) visited Handel with a proposal concerning a spiritual text he had written based on the King James Bible. The story is a reflection on the life of Jesus the Messiah beginning with the prophecy told in Isaiah, through to the Annunciation, Passion and Resurrection. Having written with the intent of it being sung, Jennens entreated Handel to compose an oratorio. In spite of the negative reaction he had received with his previous religious works, Handel accepted and estimated that he would need a year to complete the entire score.

With a new project to work on, Handel’s depression lifted and he swiftly completed the entire orchestration in 24 days, which consisted of 53 movements within three parts. Containing sections for trumpets, timpani, oboes, violins, cellos and so forth, and the famous Hallelujah ChorusMessiah was born.

“I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
-Handel speaking about composing the Hallelujah Chorus

 

 

Messiah premiered at the new Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin in April 1742. It was performed as a means of raising money “for the relief of prisoners in the several gaols and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay.” Although some people felt insulted that Handel had not premiered the oratorio in London first, his reasoning was that it was too sacred for the theatre and too long for a liturgical service – concert halls had not yet arrived in the capital.

Handel hoped for the concert in Dublin to become an annual event, however, this plan never came to fruition. Nonetheless, Messiah was soon to become a yearly occurrence in London, attracting thousands of spectators. In 1749, another benefit concert, this time in aid of the Foundling Hospital, was so successful that it was repeated each year, including after Handel’s death in 1759.

The Foundling Hospital, established in 1739, was a children’s home established for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children.” The money raised from the Messiah concerts helped to fund the home and Handel was elected a Governor of the Hospital in recognition of his support.

Despite the success of Messiah, Handel was once again nearing poverty by 1745. Opera was no longer as popular as it used to be and many performances failed to attract a full audience. Alongside this, Handel’s health was rapidly deteriorating, he was losing his sight, thus making it difficult to write. Despite a cataract operation in 1751, Handel was completely blind the following year. He remained in his house in London, occasionally attending concerts to listen to the music he had composed. The last work he heard before his death in 1759 was of Messiah.

Although he died a poor man, Handel was given full state honours and buried in the south wing of Westminster Abbey. Over 3000 mourners attended his funeral, proving that he had been a popular composer regardless of the difficulties during his final years. In his will, Handel had requested the following in regards to his burial:

I hope I have the permission of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to be buried in Westminster Abbey, in a private manner, at the discretion of my executor, Mr. Amyand; and I desire that my said executor may have leave to erect a monument for me there, and that any sum not exceeding six hundred pounds, be expended for that purpose, at the discretion of my said executor.

G.F.Handel

Handel may have been quick to anger, as evidenced by his colourful use of language, but he was also a kind and generous man, particularly considering his own financial state. An entry in his will dated 4th August 1757 stated, “a fair copy of the score, and all parts of my oratorio called the Messiah” was to be given to the Foundling Hospital so that they had every right to continue their annual benefit concert. Handel’s will can be viewed at the Foundling Museum in London.

The Foundling Museum tells the history of the hospital and its patrons including George Frideric Handel, who has an entire upper room devoted to him. Alongside his will, many other items are displayed in connection with the great composer. These have come from the Handel Collection owned by Gerald Coke, who had amassed over 1000 books, scores and objects. Coke began collecting in 1930 until his death in 1990, by which time he owned the biggest private accumulation of “Handelania” in the country.

Amongst the objects in the museum are manuscripts, paintings, posters, advertisements, music, busts and a model of his monument in Westminster Abbey. Visitors can also sit and listen to a handful of Handel’s compositions and talk to knowledgeable staff about his life and works.

 

Another statue of Handel can be viewed in the V&A. A full-length marble statue was commissioned of the composer in approximately 1730 by the proprietor of New Spring Gardens (Vauxhall Gardens) Jonathan Tyers (1702-67). At this period of time, Handel was the leading composer of music in London and his statue was used to help advertise the gardens. The sculpture was produced by Louis François Roubiliac (1702–62) and it is thought to be his first independent work, thus establishing his reputation.

There are a number of other places in London fans of Handel can visit, including a number of places he frequented, however, there is none so important as the Handel House Museum in Mayfair. Now renamed Handel and Hendrix in London, the museum is set up within the rooms of 25 Brook Street where Handel lived for the majority of his time in London. It also incorporates a room from 23 Brook Street where the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) once lived.

The house has been restored to look how it did during Handel’s 36-year occupancy until his death in 1759. The interior is decorated in the typical Georgian style and contains a variety of Handel memorabilia. The front room of the house was likely used as a rehearsal room, whereas the rear, containing Handel’s clavichord is presumably where most of his composing took place. The rest of the rooms reflect the standard living arrangements of the time, including a bedroom, dressing room and servant quarters.

Of the hundreds of items in the collection, the correspondences of Handel and original compositions are perhaps the most precious. A copy of one of the first biographies of Handel by John Mainwaring is also in the museum’s possession. The remainder of objects include prints, paintings and sculptures of the composer.

 

Although an easily recognised name, the life of Handel is largely unacknowledged and his existence is identified through his music. His name is also remembered in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church with a feast day on 28th July, which he shares with Johann Sebastian Bach and Henry Purcell (1659-95).

Amongst his contemporaries and later musicians, Handel was regarded with high esteem, particularly by Bach and Mozart (1756-91), the latter who was born in the final years of Handel’s life. Another composer that lived after Handel’s time who considered him the greatest composer who ever lived was Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Calling him “the master of us all,” Beethoven exclaimed, “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”

The man may no longer be important in contemporary society, however, Handel’s music will never go out of fashion. His compositions continue to be performed yearly for a variety of events, for instance, the BBC Proms, Good Friday services, Christmas concerts, Royal celebrations and so on.

Whether by attending an opera, a concert or hearing background music on a television advert, Handel will continue to infiltrate the lives of Londoners and the rest of the western world. Nonetheless, it is always worth discovering more about the people who have impacted lives through music or any other means; you are bound to find out something interesting.

“He died as he lived—a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and to man, and in perfect charity with all the world.”