Handel’s relationship with the Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital was founded in 1739 by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram to house and educate abandoned and orphaned children.  Established under royal charter and supported by many noted figures of the day in high society and the arts, it was the United Kingdom’s first children’s charity.  In order to raise funds for the new undertaking, one of the founding governors, the artist William Hogarth, devised a scheme of collaboration between the leading artists of his day and the charity which was profitable to both.  He himself donated portraits to the Hospital, then persuaded his artist colleagues to donate works of their own, thereby giving them a place to exhibit their art.  By effectively creating at the Hospital the United Kingdom’s first public art gallery, Hogarth gave the public a reason to visit.  The Foundling Hospital rapidly became one of the most fashionable charities in London among the rich upper-class.  Visitors would not only see the best in contemporary British art, they would also see the children at mealtime, hear them singing in the chapel, and they would hopefully donate.

What does this all have to do with Handel and his Foundling Hospital Anthem?  Everything.  After moving to London Handel had been writing Italian operas, but since it was up to the composer to rent the theatre, hire singers and musicians, and pay for costumes and scenery, operas were not always a lucrative business.  Handel began concentrating on non-operatic works, such as oratorios, in which orchestra, soloists and choir could perform less expensively.   But oratorios also required a large performing venue, and for the 1743 London premiere of Messiah, Handel rented the Covent Garden Theater for a week’s run.  The oratorio wasn’t a success, however, partly because many considered it sacrilegious to perform a sacred work in a theater. 

It is not known whether Handel was inspired by the creative philanthropy of Hogarth and his artist colleagues, but what is certain is that he recognized the Foundling Hospital Chapel’s potential as a performance venue that was free from the troublesome associations of the theatre.  In May 1749 Handel approached the governors of the Foundling Hospital and offered to conduct a benefit concert for the Hospital Chapel.  The program included the first performance of his “specially composed” Foundling Hospital Anthem.  The Anthem’s conclusion was the Hallelujah Chorus, which Handel took directly from his Messiah—a work that few of his audience would have known.

The concert was a huge success, both musically, for Handel, and financially, for the Hospital. The following year Handel returned to conduct a second benefit concert, and this time he chose Messiah itself. The event was so oversubscribed that wealthy supporters had to be turned away at the door, and Handel was asked to repeat the concert two weeks later.  To show its gratitude, the hospital made Handel a governor.  For many years thereafter, an annual benefit performance of Messiah took place in the Hospital Chapel (for today’s audiences surprisingly) at Easter.  These concerts not only succeeded in raising huge sums of money for the charity, they established Messiah’s enormous popularity among British audiences.  Handel himself conducted or attended every performance until his death in 1759.  In his will Handel left a copy of the Messiah score and performing parts to the governors of the Foundling Hospital, thus making possible for the benefit concerts to continue.  A memorial concert was held in Handel’s honor in the Hospital Chapel soon after his death, during which the Foundling Hospital Anthem was once again  performed.  It has been variously observed that, had it not been for Handel’s relationship with the Foundling Hospital that began with his performance of his Anthem, the world may never have known Messiah, Britain’s best-loved choral work.  [The above information was compiled from various Internet sources by Karen Gordon.] [photo: Wikipedia]

April 28, 2018 at 8pm and April 29, 2018 at 4pm at Holy Cross Church

Join us for this exciting concert!