Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. First stop: Handel’s house in London.
On the first floor of the Handel and Hendrix museum, you can watch a movie starring two passionate and eloquent musicians:
- a harpsichord player who sings the praises of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
- an electric guitar player who raves about Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
But when the movie ends with these two jamming together, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. And that’s typical for the relationship between pop (or rock) and classical music: they have more in common than they think, but when they end up in bed together, it seldom leads to fireworks. The result is usually kitschy, pretentious or both. (Except when it’s awesome.)
So why would they force Handel and Hendrix to share a museum? Because fate brought them together.
The story behind the Handel and Hendrix museum
You see, Jimi Hendrix lived in the attic of Handel’s house! Well, in the attic of Handel’s neighbour, to be precise. So they were divided by two centuries and a supporting wall. But that’s still a remarkable coincidence, right? (If you happen to be a statistician: I don’t really want to know.)
George and Jimi shared more than their rubbish collection day. They were both foreigners who made their fortune in London. They were both addicts – Jimi to heroin, George to food and wine. They were both musicians of course, and … that’s about it.
So I was curious to see how the Handel and Hendrix museum would fit these two musical giants together.
“I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.”
The Hendrix flat
Surprisingly, the Hendrix part of the museum made the biggest impression on me. His bedroom is decorated exactly as it was when he lived there from 1968 to 1969. Right down to the packet of Benson & Hedges and box of Quality Street next to his bed.
It was here that Jimi woke up one night to find Handel’s ghost walking in: “an old guy in a nightshirt and a grey pigtail”. Did I mention drugs were involved?
You can also browse through Hendrix’ stunningly diverse record collection. And yes, there’s some Handel in there. After hearing about his illustrious downstairs neighbour, Hendrix said: “I haven’t heard much of the fella’s stuff. But I dig a bit of Bach now and then.” He later went out to buy a copy of Messiah and Belshazzar.
The Handel house
Compared to that, the Handel portion of the Handel and Hendrix museum is a lot more, well, classical. You know what I mean: harpsichords in the middle of empty rooms, portraits on the walls, manuscripts in glass cases, …
Nothing wrong with all that, of course, but after the Hendrix experience (clever pun totally intended), I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.
Of course, that’s not the museum’s fault. We just don’t know enough about Handel’s life to recreate his private quarters with any degree of historical accuracy. But it does threaten to confirm the image of classical music as a stuffy affair. Especially when fragments of psychedelic guitar sounds keep reminding you of the cool kid living in the attic.
Visit without prejudice
Fortunately, Jimi Hendrix wasn’t so narrow-minded. Visitors to his flat remembered him playing along to his Handel records. And during the Winterland concerts, in Francisco in 1968, he inserted a musical quote from Messiah.
I’m pretty sure Handel would have returned the compliment, since at least half of his genius was due to cleverly stealing other people’s music.
So there’s at least one excellent reason to visit the Handel and Hendrix museum. It proves that – awkward bedfellows or not – pop and classical music make excellent neighbours.