Steven Isserlis - Photograph copyright, Tom Miller

“The following excerpt is from my second book for children about composers, due to be published in May 2006. The book is to be called Why Handel Waggled his Wig, and deals with six composers; Handel occupies the first chapter. Of the six - Handel, Haydn, Schubert, DvoŢák, Tchaikovsky and Fauré - all but Schubert visited London. Haydn spent two of the happiest years of his life here; Dvorak was here many times, and particularly adored performing at the Royal Albert Hall; Tchaikovsky was a bit suspicious, but then he was suspicious of anywhere outside Russia; and Fauré scored his first real foreign triumphs here, and fell in love with at least two British women. It was only Handel, though, who adopted it as his home country, spending most of his life here. So here is a brief excerpt, showing a typical day in Handel's life in London.”

We'll start with him in bed in the house in London which he leased for Ł35 a year from 1723 until his death. (Before that, he'd lived with rich patrons in their grand abodes.) It's a lovely house (which has been beautifully restored as a Handel Museum today, joined with one devoted to a rather different musician who lived next door a few hundred years later - the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix!) There are beautiful paintings all over the walls, because Handel collects them (one that's there now probably wasn't there in Handel's day, I imagine - a caricature of Handel that appeared in the newspapers of his time, in which he is depicted as a pig playing the organ!) In the master bedroom, the Master is starting to wake up in his grand red four-poster bed. ( It's rather short, but that doesn't matter, because Handel sleeps propped up on pillow; he thinks it's healthier not to lie flat.) If he's not wearing a night-cap, we can see that he's bald; and presumably the first thing that he'll do is to baldly go to the loo, which is a little ceramic pot kept inside a long wooden bucket at the end of his bed. We'll leave the room for a few moments while he does that, and the servant carries it away. Thank you. When it's safe to go in again (and hopefully Handel has been washed by his servant - not ALWAYS the case in the 18th century, by any means; he'll have been shaved, anyway), we can follow him to his dressing-room next door, where a servant will fetch his clothes from the large walk-in closet and dress his master; and then it will be time to fetch the great wig from its wig-block and fix it to the master's head. (All we know about Handel's politics, incidentally, is that he once voted for the party known as the Whigs - not surprising.)

Perhaps now he will feel ready to compose, and will descend the stairs to his composition-room, sit at a table (with a harpsichord nearby, in case he wants to try anything out) and start writing away. If he's in a really inspired mood, he'll move himself deeply with the beauty of his own ideas; and the servant who brings him his morning hot chocolate might find his master in floods of tears. (It was said that sometimes Handel even forgot to eat when he was carried away with composing; that must be have been a very strong burst of inspiration!) He may need a visitor to bring him back to normal - and it's worth waiting for Handel's happy moods; although he frowned a lot, when a smile arrived on his face, it was said to be like the sun bursting through clouds. There'll certainly be a lot of sunshine if the visitor is a distinguished gentleman who comes to the house to place an order for one of the master's latest published works. And if it's a specially good day for Handel, he'll hire a sedan chair, and two extremely strong men will hoist him up on poles and carry him off to the Bank of England, to deposit some money in his account. Positively midsummer on Handel's features!

Coming back, he'll probably have a nice big lunch, and a rest; or perhaps he'll go to the room next to his composition-room, the rehearsal-room (which doubles as his dining-room) to conduct a rehearsal with up to 40 musicians crammed into the small space; they'll be sweating madly - especially after Handel, lording it at his harpsichord, has finished barking at them for not singing or playing his music exactly as wants it. Maybe some rich lords or ladies will come swaggering in to listen to the rehearsal; but woe betide them if they're late - they won't be swaggering then, because Handel will be rude to anybody who interrupts his rehearsals, be they royalty or chimney-sweep. Once he's playing the harpsichord, he'll be completely carried away, sometimes making up all sorts of wonderful passages as he goes along. (Sometimes this can be distracting for the singers; he's supposed to be accompanying their songs, rather than them accompanying his playing, after all. Once , perhaps in this very room, a tenor threatened to jump into the harpsichord to stop Handel putting him off. The master was not impressed. 'Let me know ven you vill do that,' he requested, 'for I am sure that more people vill come to see you jump, than to hear you sing.')

Or maybe he'll work with his secretary and copyist, John Christopher Smith. (Many years earlier Handel had persuaded an old university friend, Johann Christoph Schmidt, to come from Germany to England, where he renamed himself John Christopher Smith and worked for Handel. Eventually, though, they quarrelled, and his place was taken by his son, called - er - John Christopher Smith.) But perhaps Handel should have a rest this afternoon, because tonight he has a performance of one of his oratorios. On another night, he might have gone to the house of some rich music-loving lady, or even to the Crown and Anchor Inn, and played the harpsichord for hours on end, much to the delight of the company - but not tonight.

Later, when he's rested and dressed in his evening finery, we can follow him out of the house, walking -or perhaps waddling - along with his roly-poly gait through the streets of London on his way to the theatre in nearby Covent Garden (where operas are still performed today , although in a newer building). If he's worried about the time, he can consult his beautiful silver watch, with pictures of musicians on the cover. If he's worried about something else, perhaps we might hear him muttering to himself in his own special brand of English. When he gets to the theatre, we'll leave him at the stage door and go inside the theatre to join the audience. The place is full. The rich gentlemen and their wives - or, more likely, girlfriends - sit in boxes close to the stage; the more gallant gentlemen hold candles for the ladies throughout the evening, so that the ladies can follow the words in the programme-book. At 6.30 sharp, the excited chatter stops as the great man enters, with two wax lights being carried in front of him. There is a loud burst of applause as he takes his place at the organ, with the lights placed on it, and faces the players, his back to the audience. A movement from his hands, and the performance starts, all the players and singers - sometimes more than 100 of them - with their eyes fixed firmly on Handel. The music is dramatic - the kettle drums, borrowed from the Royal Artillery sound like guns; but it is also incredibly beautiful - people are deeply stirred. Handel doesn't want just to entertain people with his oratorios; he wants 'to make them better'. And indeed, everybody there is caught up in the ecstasy of this amazing music. There may be the odd annoying Know-it-all who beats time to the music or, worse, counts aloud or discusses the performance as it goes on; but we hope that the real music-lovers will shut them up. Between the acts of the piece, Handel will play an organ concerto, and amaze everybody with his incredible skill; how does he manage to be so precise with hands so large that his fingers look like toes? Well, he does; and it is, all in all, a great occasion. It's hard for the audience to tell what Handel thinks about it all, because they can't see his face; but there's a sure sign that all is well - his wig is waggling! Not a huge waggle - but if it were still, that would be a bad sign. No, it's not still - it's nodding up and down, it's vibrating. Mr Handel is enjoying himself.

Steven Isserlis

Why Handel Waggled his Wig (extract)

Musician
(b. London, England 1958)
World-renowned cellist Steven Isserlis has performed with some of the most prestigious orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He plays on the Feuermann Stradivarius cello of 1730, kindly lent to him by the Nippon Foundation of Japan. An honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music, in 1993 Isserlis was the recipient of both the Piatigorsky Award in the US and the Royal Philharmonic Society Award in the UK. In 1998 he was awarded a CBE for his services to music, and in 2000 went on to receive the Schumann Prize of the City of Zwickau. In 2001 Isserlis also published a children's book, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, on the history of the lives of six composers.