Students can now mix baroque with rock at the Handel-Hendrix experience in Mayfair. Bernard Adams reports
George Frederic Handel moved into 25 Brook Street in Mayfair, London, in 1723. There, over the next 36 years, he composed his greatest works, including the incomparable Messiah.
In the 1960s a now-legendary rock guitarist lived in a flat in the house next door - not for very long, because his life was tragically short, but long enough for him to make his own special contribution to modern popular music.
The outside wall of Number 25 has borne a blue Handel plaque for many years. More recently, and after some controversy (to do with the relative status of the musicians), Number 23 acquired one also, in memory of Jimi Hendrix.
Inside, the Handel House Museum Trust has acquired the top three floors of both houses and it's here that, along with many other activities targeted at young people and schools, a workshop called the Handel-Hendrix experience takes place.
The house is surprisingly small inside and cannot accommodate large numbers at one time. Today nine GCSE music students have come from North Westminster School for the H-H Experience. The education officer, Jane Cockroft, whisks them off straight away on a guided tour which highlights the similarities between composers who superficially seem very different.
Both were immigrants - Handel from Germany, Hendrix from Seattle - and both encountered a swinging, buoyant London. Both were flamboyant in their dress and their music. Handel's compositions were bright, energetic, theatrical; Hendrix's likewise. Both enjoyed eating, drinking and excess, although Hendrix, sadly, far outstripped Handel in this department. Both were very private people: neither married nor had children.
The tour takes us through Handel's bedroom, where he died, and then on into his music room fitted with a handsome harpsichord.
On the walls are pictures of the 17th-century divas who sang in Handel's highly successful Italian operas - earning more per week than footballers do now and often involved in luridly-described celebrity antics including unscripted on-stage fights.
In the composition room the manic work-rate of both men emerges: Handel wrote the Messiah in three weeks - allegedly not sleeping and not eating (unlikely), in a white-heat of creativity; Hendrix composed alone in his bedroom, curtains drawn, endlessly experimenting with his guitar. We hear how 23 Brook Street was a big party venue in the 60s - famous faces included the Beatles, especially George Harrison. We also hear how one night Hendrix saw Handel's ghost, then bought tapes of Messiah and Water Music, and discovered Handel's musical legacy.
Part two of the visit is the workshop - held in a small ante-room and run on this occasion by Joe Wills, a specialist in electronic music-making. He shows how Hendrix used the newest technology of the 60s to alter and enhance the sounds he produced on his guitar. Joe adds electronic distortion and plays tracks in reverse. We learn how Hendrix could achieve very tight control of the final sound on his records, while Handel had mostly to rely on musicians following his instructions - or not.
Joe provides a quick canter through some of the huge range of devices available to modern composers and recording engineers. He reveals the difference between constructive and destructive editing and how "stretching" works - all with the aid of a large computer screen displaying what is happening. Handel would have been delighted to have had such a hugely enriched sound-palette to compose with.
ON THE MAP
Handel House Museum
25 Brook Street,
London W1K 4MB
Tel: 020 7495 1685