Guiding Handel’s Legacy: An Interview with Handel House Museum Director Sarah Bardwell

By  | May 12, 2011 | 0 Comments | Filed under: Features

The Doorway to Handel's London House

During my trip to England this past April, I had the privilege of sitting down with Sarah Bardwell, director of the Handel House Museum in London.  The house itself sits on Brook Street, just a stone’s throw from the busy shopping district of Oxford Circle; were one not looking for it, they might miss it.  A brightly painted red door just off to the side of a trendy new boutique marks the spot and directs visitors to the rear entrance off of Lancashire Court.  Just above the door and to the right, an English Heritage plaque informs passersby that Jimi Hendrix resided there from 1968-69.

After a private tour of the house, which is set up as it would have been when Handel lived there – complete with period furnishings, a replica of his harpsichord in the music room, and an original 18th century spinet (by the same maker as Handel’s own) in the composition room – we crossed into the next door house to talk. This building is also owned by the museum and is now the site of most of their special exhibits and events.  Before we got down to the nitty-gritty questions, Ms. Bardwell and I chatted a bit about Handel, and she showed her unabashed admiration for the man whose home she now oversees.


Learn More About the Handel House

SB: Handel was an amazing man – of course I’m completely biased – a genius in the true sense of the word. He spoke five languages.  He was very adept with money.  He was very shrewd.  He recognized his audience and delivered what it wanted. I think it’s very important to recognize all those sorts of traits in Handel.  He was very generous.  He left the Foundling [Hospital] the first score and parts of the Messiah to raise money.  And he also conducted and played at fundraising concerts for the Foundling in his own lifetime.  He set up the Society for Decayed Musicians, which is quite amazing, for the people who could no longer perform.  Perhaps not the best title in the world, but it still exists today, although it’s changed its name!  So it’s really important to recognize that he was – despite his temper and his sometimes difficult attitude to singers and to others – he was one of those characters that you can really imagine being quite warm.

BD: Is there anything that you learned about Handel during your time here that you didn’t know before you signed on as director?

SB: I studied music, and I came from a musical background. Bizarrely I went to school at Canons (which is the place where Handel is meant to have composed Acis and Galatea) and it’s just a complete coincidence.  So I had some knowledge of Handel.  I’m an oboist as well and the oboe is meant to have been Handel’s favorite instrument.  But you suddenly come to a place and you go through that process of learning, and you realize how little you know.  It’s like when you go to university and you think you know everything.  I’ve learned so much here, and I know there is so much more to learn – partly because he wrote so much music!  I mean 40 – over 40 operas, depending on what you name as an opera and what you don’t. And I’ve learned more about his personality and the way he lived his life, the details which I just wouldn’t have known before. I hope that’s what the house gives you when you come here, that you learn a bit more about Handel and about the kind of person that he was.

BD: Well, my next question is more about his personal life – about him adopting an identity as an Englishman. Did he really try to assimilate into London society?  We know that he changed the spelling of his name and considered London home, but did he keep to himself and maintain his German identity, or did he really try to fit in here? (Read our article about the spelling Handel’s name throughout his lifetime here.)

SB: I think he really tried to fit in here.  He has the reputation of never losing his German accent, and so people think that he therefore didn’t become as English and still remained quite German, but actually I think he didn’t.  I mean, people just keep their accents and that’s the way it goes!  But he had a great set of friends; not only his patrons, but a circle of people that were writing about him and talking about him, and supporting him financially. They were investing in his operas and the writing of new operas. He was certainly a Londoner. Whether you’d call him British… I don’t know, but he was certainly a Londoner, and that was quite important. He used all that London had to offer in the way of social institutions and facilities. The fact that he stayed here is another indication of how at home he had become.  I mean, there’s the odd letter to his mother back in Germany, but they were very formal.  It’s just so frustrating that we don’t know anything more about him [in that respect], I mean Mozart couldn’t get out of bed without writing a letter about it!  So it’s very frustrating for me!

BD: What do you know about Handel’s relationship with his singers?  What did he expect from them?  Is there any evidence that he had a personal fondness for any one or more of them, or was it just business as usual?

Faustina Bordoni, one of Handel's most famous sopranos. This portrait hangs in Handel's music room.

SB: I think it was interesting because, of course, the singers were paid so well. They were so much the stars of the show and there were these cliques supporting them. The singers had their fan bases who would sort of cheer wildly when one sang and when the other one sang they would talk loudly so that you couldn’t hear them. I think Handel wasn’t like that, he drove it much more than perhaps other composers did in that he was very demanding.  There is a wonderful story about – I can’t remember which singer it was… a tenor – who got so lost in the cadenza that Handel goes, “Oh welcome back!” because finally he makes it back to the tonic!  There’s a tale of – it didn’t happen here, although people say it happened here – of him threatening to throw some soprano out of the window because she wasn’t performing correctly.  He gives as good as he gets.  When the singers say “I can’t sing that” or “I don’t want to sing that” he’s quite determined that they should do as he wants, which is quite interesting at that time, when the singers really did – and could call the shots.

I’m not sure how fond he was of his singers.  There’s a story of him using Susanna Cibber to perform at the first performance of Messiah in Dublin, and that was quite an interesting and potentially brave thing, considering that her reputation before that had been [questionable] – she’d been involved in this peculiar – do you know the story about this sort of menage a trois…?

BD: Ah yes, and she was the alto?

Francesco Bernardi Senesino, one of Handel's Alto Castrati

SB: Yes, she sang He was despised.  And then the clergyman stood up after that and said “For this, woman, all thy sins be forgiven,” because she had this awful reputation – in fact, misplaced – but in the papers and everything. The fact that he chose her to sing was interesting, so maybe he felt a fondness for her. Of course, he wrote particular things for particular people with particular voices and you can see that in scores. When he writes for Monsieur Senesino, it actually says that in the score.  But whether that was a fondness that translated into anything more than writing good music, or whether he really liked hanging out with them, I don’t know!

I get the impression – and again, it’s from reading the various things that have been written – that he was quite a loner in many ways.  He lived here by himself.  He worked really hard. To write all of that music he had to have been working pretty much nonstop when he could work. So…  I just don’t know how fond he was of anyone in that way.  Of course there are a lot of stories about was he gay? Did he have relationships with women? I don’t know how important that is to us.  I mean, that whole concept is very different for us today anyway. He’s supposed to have had a relationship with a singer in Italy in his early career, but again it’s all referenced in letters and nothing directly written. And then, because he has no relationships in London that are reported, it’s sort of assumed oh, maybe he’s gay. Well, I’m not sure that it really matters.  He wrote amazing music, and we know so little about his background.  I’m not sure how much that influenced what he wrote one way or the other.

BD: And his relationship was primarily with his music anyway.

SB: Yes. Exactly.

BD: I want to ask about his work ethic, which you have already brought up – how he worked around the clock.  I know there are people who have speculated that perhaps he was manic-depressive or something.

Copy of Handel's Harpsichord (c) Matthew Hollow. Note the portraits of Handel's singers on the wall.

SB: He was ill from time to time.  Whether he was manic-depressive, I don’t know.  But… there’s that whole thing about him – you’ve probably read the David Hunter articles about him binge-eating. Again, I think that we’re trying to put 20th century concepts onto an 18th century man.  I’m sure everyone is a bit weird in their own way, so let’s face it, I’m pretty sure Handel was! He did write Messiah in three weeks. There are a few definite facts for us like that; because he signed the manuscript when he finished a piece of work, we know when that happened. He did work very quickly, and apparently he worked around the clock. When he was composing, it completely engrossed him. I think he definitely suffered from bouts of ill health and that probably affected his writing at the time.

BD: I was wondering, just as a fun little aside, we know there’s this connection between Handel and Jimi Hendrix. I believe he lived here?

SB: In the flat upstairs, yes.

BD: So was Jimi Hendrix aware of that connection?

Jimi Hendrix historical plaque

SB: Yes, he’s meant to be.  He lived for eighteen months upstairs with his then girlfriend, who was this woman called Kathy Etchingham, who is still around.  And she tells a story of Jimi and her going out to buy a copy of Handel’s Messiah and the Water Music.  There was a shop called One Stop Records.  It used to be on South Molton Street, it was quite famous, and they just went there and bought it.  She also tells a story of when he was upstairs in the bathroom and he came rushing downstairs and said “Oh, I’ve just seen a man in the house, with a wig on!  I’m sure it’s Handel!” But you sort of think, I’m not sure how stoned he was at the time!

BD: Do you have a personal favorite exhibition or exhibit that you’ve held during your time here?

Visit The 2009 Celebration Archive Online

SB: 2009 was pretty special, because it was the 250th anniversary of his death, and we did a really great collaboration with BBC Radio Three, where they played a Handel opera every week… and on our site – it’s actually still on our site in an archive – we put a synopsis up about the opera that it was and who sang in the first performance. That was a really exciting project which I really was pleased that we managed to make happen.  Probably the most memorable thing that year was actually on April the 14th, the day that Handel died in 1759.  We opened the house for free and we literally had queues around the block.  We had over 600 people come to walk through Handel’s house on the day that he died.  That morning at eight o’clock we did a live broadcast on Radio Three from the House, and we had Iestyn Davies singing and Laurence Cummings playing harpsichord.  It was really exciting for Radio Three to do a live broadcast because they never do live at eight o’clock in the morning.  And I don’t think Iestyn will be doing it in a hurry again!  He was like, “Sorry, how did anyone persuade me to do this?!”  Who knows what time he got up! It was really amazing because [Handel is] meant to have died at eight o’clock, which is the reason why [we had the broadcast then].  Although, having said that, he probably died during the night, and when the servant came and found him in the morning, he found him dead.  Getting here at six o’clock that morning and opening up the house was quite special.  And then to have all these visitors come and, just kind of be here.  It was really, really great.  Lots of people come here and they can sort of “sense something,” and they get very romantic about this whole notion of, “Oh yeah, I can really imagine him here!  I can feel his presence!”  And I don’t really do that. I’m a bit more straightforward about these things, but actually that day was pretty special.  You did get excited, but mainly because so many people wanted to be here. I think that was probably my high point.

BD: I’d imagine that in a way it’s a daunting task, in this time of instant gratification and on-demand technology, to expose a new generation to Handel, and I was wondering how you remain – or if you even have the concern of “remaining relevant.”  I know that’s almost an insulting thing to say…

SB: No, no, not at all.  I think you’re completely right, and it’s very difficult because we’ve got these two sort of opposite things. You say “remaining relevant” and it is really important. I’m very keen that we try to introduce Handel to another generation, and not just the sort of small part of the generation that happens to be studying or singing or playing. If you’re around the house it’s just a beautiful, special place. There’s this whole hustle and bustle particularly where we’re situated, with Oxford Street and the crazy assault on the senses you have when you’re outside.  So to come in here and have this really special, quiet place – I mean, sometimes music is playing, but it’s a very amazing atmosphere. I wouldn’t want to lose that. There’s an argument that someone said, “Well, when you walk in the composition room you should have Messiah blasting out!” and I think, well yes, but it wouldn’t have been like that when Handel was here; even if he was playing the harpsichord, it would have been just a harpsichord. He wouldn’t have had an orchestra here in any sense, so there’s that sort of argument between how much do we go down the road of modern technology. For our next exhibition we’re having an animation of how the house would have looked in the 18th century and it will do a sort of “fly by” and go around the building. That will be quite interesting, but I think we have to do it as tastefully as we can, without being too extreme in the immediate interpretation of the house.  I think our website and our online presence at the moment is pretty dire, and we’re hopefully going to improve that this year. I think that can really, hopefully draw in a younger crowd.  We just did some filming yesterday, actually for a Handel opera that’s going to be given its American premiere in Colorado by the Central City Opera Company.

BD: Oh yes, they’re doing Amadigi di Gaula.

SB: Yes, and they’ve actually got two English singers doing it who were here yesterday recording.  They made a promotional video for the opera, and hopefully we’ll be able to use some of that on our website. I do hope that we can find ways to try and engage with a [younger crowd].  We’ve got a Facebook page, and Hendrix has helped us in some ways.  We had the Hendrix exhibition last year, we had lots of people come, and you have to go through Handel’s house to get to the exhibition. I hope that will help us develop our audience as well, but it’s a constant thing.  You’re asking a good question.  It’s exactly what worries me all the time, because my visitor numbers are only about 20,000 a year and that’s not very many visitors.  But that’s a really hard thing with music. Classical music is regarded as this sort of elitist, rarefied thing, and it’s ridiculous. It just doesn’t need to be that.  So you know what it’s like – you go to a performance and the whole audience is sort of sixty-plus apart from the clique of music students.

BD: In closing, I just wonder if you might be able to give us a picture of Handel the man.  You’ve done a great job of this already, but tell me something that will make him seem more real to our readers.

Goupy's caricature of Handel. Note the pig snout and the excess of food surrounding him.

SB: I suppose we haven’t really talked about him physically.  He was certainly a large man for the time, I think, although he was probably about my height. I mean, I’m about 5’10”,  and I don’t know if you noticed, but Handel’s bed was quite short. People always say that’s because people were shorter. Actually it was because they were encouraged to sleep sitting up to aid their digestion. I’m sure in Handel’s case that was probably essential. I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a wonderful print of a caricature of Handel and it was done by Goupy, this wonderful caricaturist in the 18th century. Handel had Goupy over for supper in the front room.  They were having some food and wine and Handel kept having this great thought and rushing to the back room to write it down, and he did this three or four times. The fourth time Goupy had come through to say, “Well I want to hear this great thought,”  and discovered Handel drinking really much finer Claret and eating much better food than he’s giving to his guests. And so Goupy goes away very angry about this, and does this amazing caricature of Handel looking like a pig. I think there was that side to Handel. I think he was quite greedy, and really enjoyed his food, and sometimes didn’t care about people if they weren’t [musicians]. I think that’s probably why he got on with the singers, because of their skill. There were a lot of those he really didn’t have the time of day for.  So there is the physical presence of Handel that I suppose would have been quite awesome in a way, because he was quite big!


For more information, please visit the Handel House Online.  If you are ever in London, I highly recommend paying the museum a visit!  Unlike Ms. Bardwell, I am not so “straightforward about these things;” I certainly felt a bit of a chill upon entering Handel’s music room.  Maybe it was all the portraits on the walls of Faustina, Senesino, and Carestini, or maybe it was the image that Ms. Bardwell left me with: Handel once crowded over forty people into that little music room (which she says today fits a maximum of thirty) for a run-through of a new opera. I certainly felt exhilarated at the thought of standing in the house where Handel spent his most private moments and wrote his most beautiful music.

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Bryan DeSilva is an up-and-coming operatic countertenor whose voice has been hailed as "otherworldly," possessing "a warm and honeyed tone." He holds a Master's Degree in Vocal Performance from Temple University's Boyer College of Music and currently lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.