Handel the philanthropist

Expert opinion
George Frideric Handel was probably the leading musician of the early eighteenth century, a composer, performer and entrepreneur who weathered periods of financial difficulty in his professional life and shared the benefits of his successes.  German-born, he settled in London early in his career and worked for many different patrons including the Royal household, as well as running his own opera productions and concert series, and collaborating in various business ventures.  Handel favoured two charities in particular; the Fund for Decay’d Musicians (now the Royal Society of Musicians) and the Foundling Hospital, which both benefited from his charitable activities and from bequests in his will.
Handel’s relationship with the Foundling Hospital and with the Society for the Support of Decay’d Musicians developed during the last two decades of his life, when he was enjoying prosperity after a period of financial uncertainty. He had been investing in the hazardous field of opera production, risking capital to hire a theatre, performers and staff to perform his newly composed operas, and hoping for good returns in ticket sales, but as the popularity of Italian opera waned he moved towards oratorio production, which had lower costs and became hugely popular among the emerging middle classes of the eighteenth century. It was an ‘age of philanthropy’, with the construction of many hospitals and other charitable institutions, and Handel was among many artists, lawyers, doctors and other professionals in giving expertise and financial support to those in need. 
Handel and the Foundling Hospital
Benefit concerts were a popular form of fundraising for individuals and institutions in the eighteenth century, and in 1749 Handel approached the Hospital to offer a benefit concert to fund the completion of the building of the Chapel. The concert took place three weeks later, attracted a full house and raised over £350.  Handel composed the anthem Blessed are they that considereth the poor (the ‘Foundling Hospital anthem’) for the occasion. This work borrows music from various earlier works, finishing with the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from Messiah, which would hardly have been known to London audiences at that time.
Handel declined an invitation to become a Hospital Governor, preferring to serve the charity “in his way”; the following year he performed Messiah for the Hospital’s benefit. The oratorio had been first performed in Dublin in 1742, at a charitable concert ‘For the Relief of Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital … and of the Charitable Infirmary’. However, it had not been well received by London audiences, who debated whether such a sacred subject should be performed in a theatre, more commonly associated with secular themes; there were no concert halls at this time. The performance of Messiah in 1750 for a charitable purpose, the Foundling Hospital, resolved this difficulty; the concert was oversubscribed, and a second performance was hastily arranged to accommodate those who had been turned away. 
Handel paid for the first organ for the Hospital chapel, and remained in close contact, advising the Governors on the concert for the formal opening of the Chapel in 1753, and approving the appointment of the organist in 1754.  He gave annual benefit performances of Messiah until his death in 1759, raising almost £7,000 for the charity, whilst establishing Messiah as a central work in the English repertoire.
The Fund for the Support of Decay’d Musicians
In 1738 three musicians working at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket were inspired to create a fund to help musicians and their families in distress, and advertised a meeting for the “Subscribers to a Fund for the Support of Decay’d Musicians or their families”. A year later 228 musicians, including Handel, put their names to the Declaration of Trust, paying an annual subscription.  With no safety net of a welfare state, illness, the loss of a finger or even of teeth could quickly leave a professional musician destitute, and London had a large population of musicians from home and abroad.  The nobility and gentry gave support and the Fund became the Royal Society of Musicians, gradually acquiring funds which were invested to provide income, so that today it no longer relies only on subscriptions. 
In 1739 Handel gave his first benefit concert for the Society at the King’s Theatre, providing both the theatre and his direction of the performance free of charge. Tickets were free, but many people donated to the charity. He went on to support many further concerts, and in the last codicil to his will, written a few days before his death in 1759, bequeathed £1,000 to the Society, a huge donation which was unmatched for many years. A performance of Handel’s Messiah was given almost every year for the Society’s benefit from 1760 until 1914.
Handel’s legacy
In 1784 a Handel Commemoration festival took place in London, and proceeds from the performances were advertised as for the benefit of the Society. The concerts attracted an audience of 4,500 and raised £6,000 for the Society and £1,000 for the Westminster Hospital. These concerts began a tradition of Handel festivals, and inspired music festivals across the country, where provincial cities were building their own hospitals funded by charitable giving. In his will Handel gave ‘a fair copy of the Score and all the parts of my Oratorio called The Messiah to the Foundling Hospital’; the provision of a set of performing parts would enable the concerts to continue after his death. Handel died in 1759 and the parts were duly copied out and delivered to the Hospital; they can be seen today in the Foundling Museum (see foundlingmuseum.org.uk). Annual benefit performances of Messiah at the Hospital continued for many years.
While Handel’s music is his greatest bequest, his philanthropic work in donating performances for needy causes also established a lasting legacy.  Performances of his works, in particular of Messiah, for charitable causes have taken place throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and continue to this day.  As well as the Handel Commemoration concerts in the 18th century which raised considerable sums for the Royal Society of Musicians, performances of Handel’s music were particularly associated with benefit concerts for the Sons of the Clergy, and for several hospitals and infirmaries.  In 1834 the Handel Commemoration in Westminster Abbey was revived and the funds raised were shared between several musical charities.  Many provincial choral festivals were established in the 19th century and benefited local charities, such as the Birmingham Triennial Musical Festival which supported the Birmingham General Hospital; these festivals included Handel’s works almost without exception.

This expert opinion is tagged under:

  • Arts & heritage
  • Causes
  • Inspirational donations