April 7, 2009 / 9:33 PM / 9 years ago

Handel's binge eating and blindness explored

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - George Frideric Handel is best remembered for his beautiful music.

But ahead of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, an exhibition on the creator of “Messiah” looks at the man behind the music, including his bank details, blindness and binge-eating.

“I thought in this anniversary year ‘celebrating’ his death it would be nice to ask questions like ‘what did he die of?', ‘how did he live?', ‘what about his love life?',” said Christopher Hogwood, curator of “Handel Reveal‘d.”

The show at the London home where Handel lived for 36 years, composed some of his most famous music and died aged 74 in 1759, runs from April 8 to October 25.

“Handel was terribly private and clearly thought that the public had no right to know what happened in his house once he had closed the door,” Hogwood told Reuters.

“When you try to piece together the facts of his life it is sort of opposite to Mozart, who was a very open figure. There are terrible gaps (in our knowledge) and periods when we don’t even know where Handel was.”

Handel’s secrecy is apparent throughout the show at the Handel House Museum which also contains a permanent exhibition.

Little is known of his love life, for example, except that he never married. The exhibition only speculates that he never had a lasting personal relationship and also addresses the possibility that the German-born composer was gay.

More is known about his health problems, which included obesity, binge eating, paralysis and blindness that dogged Handel during the latter part of his life.

LEAD POISONING

Recurring episodes of paralysis, for example, may be explained by lead poisoning as a result of the alcohol he drank being stored in lead-lined vessels.

His love of fine food is underlined by a reported episode when Handel invited his artist friend Joseph Goupy to a “plain and frugal” meal at the townhouse in Mayfair.

Handel excused himself and was gone from the table for so long that Goupy went to look for him. The guest found his host in another room feasting on much finer food and drink.

Goupy got his revenge with caricatures of Handel as a giant organ-playing pig and referred to him in the verse below as “this harmonious boar.”

The two apparently remained friends until the publication of the engravings in 1754, at which time Handel ended the friendship and removed a legacy to Goupy from his will.

As well as the regular exhibits, the show features a life mask of Handel’s face, a rarely seen portrait by Philip Mercier and the score for his final major piece of music, “Jephtha.”

At the bottom of one page a note in Handel’s hand dated February 13, 1751, reads: “Unable to go on owing to a weakening of the sight of my left eye.”

Handel recovered and completed the score that year. He died on April 14 1759, having announced the previous evening that he would not receive more guests and was “done with the world.”

The show is one of a series of events marking the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death. On April 14 BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a performance of Messiah live from Westminster Abbey.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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