Monday, 1 April 2013

Locus genii

Covent Garden Theatre in the 1820's
We all like to think of London as an intensely historical place, where in many places we walk in the footsteps of the past. But London has had a constant tendency to re-invent and rebuild itself so in musical terms there are not too many places where we can stand in the steps of history. Fires and two world wars, not to mention the Victorian and 20th century passion for regeneration, has left us with few really historic arts venues. Theatres have a tendency to burn down, and all of our concert halls are 20th century or later. Until relatively recently, London didn't even have a composer house museum though the Handel House Museum has thankfully remedied that. Instead we have to use our imagination, and look beneath the present city.

Every year, the London Handel Festival puts on a wide range of concerts of music by Handel and his contemporaries at St. George's Church, Hanover Square, London. The church was Handel's parish church, he worshiped there and played the organ (though not the organ that you hear today). But, alas, during his life-time not much of his music was performed there; his operas and oratorios were all performed in theatres, principally the King's Theatre and Covent Garden. The King's Theatre of Handel's day has become His Majesty's Theatre and Covent Garden has burned down a couple of times since. So neither venue can evoke Handel's performances. The only venue that could have done was the chapel of the Foundling Hospital, where Handel put on an annual performance of Messiah. This managed to survive into the 20th century but in the 1930's no-one seemed to think it worth saving. You can go along to the Foundling Hospital Museum and see interiors from the Foundling Hospital that are associated with Handel, but not the places where he performed. There is however one other venue associated with Handel's oratorios which survives; the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. You don't immediately associate Handel with Oxford, but he did a short season there, and premiering Athalia there.

The closest we get in many ways, in fact, is his house in Brook Street. This has now been restored as the Handel House museum and contains, on the first floor, a great room in which Handel held rehearsals. And here, we really can imagine the composer rehearsing, perhaps.

We have similar problems with Purcell, all of the theatres that he wrote for have long gone. In fact theatres as indoor venues in London were in their infancy when Purcell wrote for the theatre companies and, as noted above, they had a tendency to burn down.

With both Purcell and Handel we are on slightly better ground with sacred music; both wrote for state occasions in Westminster Abbey, and both wrote for the Chapel Royal. The Queens Chapel in St. James's Palace survives pretty much in the state it was re-furbished during the reign of Charles II. But the Chapel Royal in St James's Palace was substantially re-worked during the reign of Queen Victoria so that if you go in nowadays the atmosphere is far more redolent of Victoria's reign than anything earlier.

The problem of theatres burning down regularly means that, in fact, very few London theatres are old enough to be associated directly with the great names of the past. Henry Irving and Ellen Terry's Lyceum Theatre burned down and the present Lyceum Theatre (currently home to the Lion King), is a 20th century building. Covent Garden's multiple burnings  (in 1807 and 1857) have left us with a building which has a long history, but which itself dates from 1858. The tendency of theatres to burn also means that we have lost the associated archives and scores (the score and parts of Arne's Artaxerxes disappeared in the 1807 Covent Garden fire). Even the 19th century institution of the Savoy Operas has not been immune to this constant renewal. The Savoy Theatre as it exists today was rebuilt and modernised in 1929, and re-built again in 1993 after a fire.

But close to the Royal Opera House, is the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and this theatre dates from 1812. So when you visit it, you can imagine Edmund Kean as Shylock, or Balfe's Bohemian Girl. (The Theatre Royal, Haymarket is similar, it dates from 1820; interestingly this re-building was not due to fire but to John Nash's rebuilding of Regent Street and the Haymarket areas.) 

Perhaps part of London's charm is this very varied nature of the survival. We might not have an 18th century Court Theatre, where Handel played, instead history has left a patchwork of traces, signs of the vigour of musical life in the capital. So that as you wander round, you get tantalising glimpses of the many different artists who have performed here over the years.


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