Thursday, 28 July 2016

Handel & Hendrix in London

25 Brook Street
Monday July  25 2016

Today’s expedition could not be further from the gentle hills of North Kent , where we were last week, as Brook Street is pretty much in the heart of the West End with quick access to Oxford Street, Regent Street and Mayfair. Crossrail was disturbing the relative peace of these back streets but it is very tranquil inside the pair of Georgian town houses which combine to make the
Handel & Hendrix in London Museum. 

The Museum has only recently re-opened in this configuration – essentially Handel lived at Number 25 with adjacent rooms in 23 used for exhibition and performance space while Hendrix lived on the top two floors of 23 with the exhibition and film of his life in London taking up the top floors of 25 which we presume was either let by Handel or used by his servants .

Both houses are classic Georgian town houses – such a good design for a busy metropolis where ground space is limited so while the footprint is modest both houses run to five floors.

The tour starts on the first floor – Handel moved in here in 1723, a German citizen (immigrant or economic migrant?) who had followed his Hanoverian King to England and been rewarded with being given charge of music at the Chapel Royal (located in St James’ Palace) – additionally he was asked to tutor the three daughters of the King ,  possibly a less joyful job as it seems only one of them was remotely musical.   As a ‘foreigner’ he was not allowed to buy or have a mortgage though he did take English citizenship in his Forties. The first room is known as the Composition Room and though bare bar a few chairs and an organ is well illustrated with prints and pictures of Handel’s contemporaries and the many musicians he knew, employed, encouraged or otherwise would have known. By the time Handel had moved here, he had already achieved success with a variety of compositions , most memorably the  Water Music.

During his many years living in this house he combined continuing to compose – there are strings of operas based on Roman and other classical stories – with directing an opera company. This can never have been an easy job –set aside the rivalries and budgeting he contended with diva sopranos who asked him to re-write parts to suit their ‘changing voice’ with variable critical responses and a near riot in the Footmen’s Gallery – we presumed the footmen various sat up in the gallery ready to accompany their downstairs lords home, a slight reversal of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. As well as the prints and portraits there are selected excerpts from contemporary commentators, some of them less than flattering about the principal performers.  The back room on this floor offers a range of costumes for dressing up and ‘photo shoots’ but only if you are of a smaller size!

The ‘Music Room’ which has the maximum light from the three windows had some wind instruments , which I thought formed part of the display – however soon four musicians appeared and having sorted their presumably jumbled pieces started rehearsing thus reprising the original function of this room.

Like Handel’s musicians and contemporaries coming from all over Europe there is text available in all the most common languages for today’s visitors. Still on Floor 1 but crossing over to Number 23 two equally large rooms have been designated an Exhibition Space. Certainly spacious and with panels of text rather than artefacts (there is some actual music) this room currently gives context to Handel’s 1723 by informing of what else was happening in London and the country. For example, following the Workhouse Act of 1723 subsequent ‘enabling’ legislation allowed individual parishes to implement a workhouse system without recourse to parliament. Knatchbull’s Act of 1723 allowed parishes to stipulate that those who required relief had to go into the workhouse. Prints show the plan for the Mayfair Workhouse, long since demolished. It seems incredible to think that this current hotspot of prime real estate once had a designated building for the relief of the Parish poor, but this particular legislation also specified that those seeking relief would be obliged to work . This whole concept of the working poor and relief of poverty still pervades current thinking and policies… Another notable piece of 1723 legislation was reactive, as so much law making is, this time to curb and punish what had been a proliferation of ‘poaching’.  As Henry Fielding refers to poachers in his 1749 novel ‘Tom Jones’ one can only surmise that ‘The Black Act’ of 1723 was not altogether successful  as is often the case with clandestine crimes and criminals.

The exhibition is not all about the music then!

Up on the second  floor is a reconstruction of Handel’s bedroom with adjacent dressing room – although the house already benefitted from water indoors (as opposed to the parish pump, always a good breeding ground for infection) the flush toilet was still some years off so this would have doubled as ‘bathroom’ too. The display tells us that in his later years Handel had his servant bed down next door rather than upstairs. Though Handel had a long and busy professional work record little seems known of his private life – other than he was a ‘private’ man and never seemed to have had any long-term relationships. In later life he combined direction with philanthropic work and famously wrote his ‘Messiah’ Oratorio for the benefit of  the Foundling Museum where much of the original Handel memorabilia  are lodged.  He died here in 1759.
Continuing up the stairs (which do get narrower/steeper as you climb) you then arrive at the Hendrix Exhibition , where there is far more to read and absorb, though poor old Jimi died at 27. The reason of course is that even before video and social media many of this musician’s performances are recorded on film and there are several transcripts of interviews with him, newspaper, magazine and fan articles.  His short life is covered in considerably greater detail than Handel’s much longer one.
Jimi was of course another ‘foreigner’, born in Seattle.  He took up the guitar at a very early age – his father thought being left-handed was the ‘devil’s work’ so Jimi learnt to play a right handed guitar left –handed which apparently contributed a) to his unique sound and b) to his habit of holding/playing  his guitar in all sorts of strange positions. He was of course a virtuoso guitarist and once heard, never forgotten but underneath the undoubted talent lay years of hard graft. He fell out of school and after a minor misdemeanour into the 101st Airborne regiment then out of the army after a parachute malfunction, but there followed years of playing in a variety of ‘backing groups’ on what was known as the Chittlin’ Circuit – music tours for Black audiences in what was (still) segregated America. He loved to improvise even then and there is a wonderful story that, exasperated by his maverick playing  his then band /group leader Burke traded him to Otis Redding  for two horn players just to get some peace. When Keith Richard’s then girlfriend heard him play in New York she insisted on bringing him to the UK, and the rest, as they say, is history. Initially he formed part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience with two white English musicians but they were discarded on the way…. The exhibition focuses on his few months living at Number 23 Brook Street. Prior to moving here he had ‘sofa-surfed’ around Soho as his all-night playing did not go down well with neighbours.  The ever grounded Ringo Starr stood guarantor for the small flat/ rooms rented here.  There were no other live-in tenants below, just an employment bureau and small café. The bath and kitchen were even further upstairs presumably not now accessible for health and safety reasons so what you see, admirably reconstructed, is the bed-sitting room and next door crash pad now set out as the Record Room.

The latter is lined with vinyl and there is a careful listing of all the LPs that he owned with his and general comments where appropriate, showing his influences before and those he influenced in turn and some records were well and truly used. Like most jobbing musicians Jimi was a ‘night-owl’: concerts and performances were often followed by jamming sessions when his friends crashed here. It was also his ‘office’ and there is ample evidence of the number of interviews which took place here, when he finally woke up PM. It was from these pieces and their accompanying photos that the museum was able to reconstruct the main room. They were also greatly helped in this by his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham who was with him throughout his time at Brook Street. It was a ‘first own home’ for both of them but buying the carpet and curtains from John Lewis looks very ‘mainstream’ and not very ‘rock n’roll’  until you realize ( as we did) that it is a five minute walk away. They were of course aware that Handel had preceded them as his Blue Plaque was already up next door, and this added to the attraction. The tidy room is very atmospheric with its combination of old and new fabrics and what was modern then – a good record player and speakers and electric fire   now looking very period after nearly 50 years… the small heater brought back memories (not good) of those months of freezing pre central heating.

That just about brings the tour to an end – actually the two great musicians though very different and separated by 200 years – one a steady establishment figure , the other a unique performer lost to the  darker side of the Sixties rock’n’roll life-style – but both living on, of course in their music, but also in these houses , to give enjoyment to successive generations. 

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