George Frideric Handel
In 1749 George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) approached the Foundling Hospital to offer a benefit concert to fund the completion of the Chapel. The Hospital minutes record
Mr Handel being present and having generously and charitably offered a performance of vocal and instrumental music to be held at this Hospital, and that the money arising therefrom should be applied to the finishing the chapel of the Hospital Resolved — That the thanks of this Committee be returned to Mr Handel for this his generous and charitable offer.
The concert, attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales, included a newly-composed work, the Foundling Hospital anthem ‘Blessed are they that considereth the poor’ and was a musical and financial success. The anthem borrows music from various earlier works, and finishes with the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus borrowed from Messiah, which would hardly have been known to London audiences, as there had been only a handful of performances since its first performance in Dublin in 1742. The Governors asked Handel to arrange another benefit concert the following year, and the 1750 performance of Messiah was sold out and double booked, so that a second performance had to be hastily arranged for a fortnight later. The Hospital minutes note that the High Constable and his assistants were to be asked to attend to keep gate-crashers out.
Handel was duly elected a Governor of the Hospital – an invitation he had at first refused, saying he preferred to serve the Hospital ‘in his way’. He donated the organ for the Hospital chapel, and this venue provided the perfect solution for performing Messiah, a work which had been considered by many to be unsuitable for concert performance because of its subject, but which became acceptable when performed in a chapel for the benefit of the charity. After 1750 Handel gave a benefit performance of Messiah every year until his death in 1759, after which the performances continued annually until 1777. As well as benefiting the Foundling Hospital, the annual performances helped to establish the oratorio in its central place in English performance repertoire.
Handel’s benefit concerts for the hospital raised almost £7,000, equivalent to about £500,000 in today’s money, and these performances also established Messiah as a central work in the English repertoire. In his will the composer left a score and parts of the work to the Hospital, to enable them to continue with the Messiah concerts, as performing parts would not be easily available. These have been preserved by the charity and can now be seen alongside the original will in the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, which includes manuscripts, musical scores, books, paintings and ephemera relating to Handel.
Image: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) by the school of Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) © The Gerald Coke Handel Collection