London Handel Festival: ‘Handel was one of the best networkers of all time’

A scene from Ariodante at the London Handel Festival. Picture: Chris Christodoulou

A scene from Ariodante at the London Handel Festival. Picture: Chris Christodoulou - Credit: Archant

If you’ve ever wondered why the wrought-iron gates to Hampstead Parish Church are so elaborate, it’s because they were originally made for Cannons: the great palace of James Brydges, Duke of Chandos in Stanmore, which is famous for three reasons.

Adrian Butterfield. Picture: Chris Christodoulou

Adrian Butterfield. Picture: Chris Christodoulou - Credit: Archant

One: it was enormous, like a Versailles of North London. Two: there’s nothing left of it, because it was torn down within three decades to pay Brydges’ debts. And three: it was where the composer Georg Frideric Handel lived from 1717-19 as an honoured guest of the household.

I say there’s nothing left of Cannons, but there is a church, St Lawrence, Little Stanmore, which formed part of the estate and was where Handel played the organ (still there, more or less) and organised the music for the services.

In Handel’s time the church had just been redesigned by Brydges in baroque style – strangely like a theatre, with a sort of royal box – opening in this new guise for the liturgy on Easter Sunday 1716. And marking the 300th anniversary of that event, the 2016 London Handel Festival is to hold a concert there: needless to say, of music written for performance in the church.

There will be one of Handel’s Chandos Anthems, No.8, alongside the substantial but not often heard Chandos Te Deum. And in charge of the performances will be conductor/violinist Adrian Butterfield, the Festival’s associate director, who has given concerts in the Little Stanmore church before.

“It’s an extraordinary place”, he says,”with Brydges’ mausoleum on the side and a surviving sense of what must have gone on there when Handel was in residence.

“Brydges kept a household of 20-30 musicians, which was probably the largest musical establishment in Britain outside the court. He was able to have it because he was fabulously rich. Much of the money came from being Paymaster General of the armed forces during the War of the Spanish Succession, which meant he was given vast amounts from government upfront, to use as he pleased. One suspects he didn’t always use it as intended. There was a parliamentary enquiry into his financial dealings, and he was exonerated. But parliamentary enquiries in the 18th Century weren’t as rigorous as they might be and he did in fact resign – though not until he’d made himself a very wealthy man”.

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He certainly speculated with government funds. And it was speculation on the infamous South Sea Bubble that eventually ruined Brydges’ family, with the result that Cannons was demolished soon after his death and its fitments sold off. Hence the Hampstead gates.

But in the year or so that Handel was there, it must have been a glittering environment (if still partly a building site as work continued), and a place, perhaps, of interesting secrets. Several scholars think that Brydges, although three-times married, was in fact gay and maintained a more or less gay household. That Handel got drawn into it supports a raft of inconclusive but persuasive evidence that he was gay as well – which might explain why, on his death, his left his house and contents to his valet: a bizarre thing to have done, unless the valet was in fact his partner.

Butterfield refuses to be drawn on that. “It’s guesswork”, he insists, “and not particularly relevant to Handel’s output. What you can say, though, is that he was a fascinating character: outspoken, blustery and loud, but with a twinkle in his eye.

“He had a remarkable ability to get on with people and charm them, as he certainly did when he was a young man in Rome. There was this staunch German Protestant with cardinals falling at his feet: he was one of the great networkers of all time. But he was also somebody with great humanity, as you hear in his music.

“Handel’s operas are full of unpleasant characters doing dreadful things, but he can somehow make you feel for them, in music of profoundly moving depth. It’s emotionally all-encompassing – which is why the London Handel Festival has been active now for 38 years without running out of steam.

“In the time I’ve been involved I’ve done more than half of the operas, nearly all the oratorios, and a lot else besides. But I never tire of it. Its possibilities are inexhaustible”.

This year’s Handel Festival runs until 11th April. Most events take place in the central London church where Handel worshipped for much of his life, St George’s Hanover Square. But there are concerts at St John’s Smith Square, Wigmore Hall, the Grosvenor Chapel, and other venues. The Little Stanmore Concert (nearest tube, Canons Park) is Thursday Apr 7, 7.45pm. Details.