George Frederic Handel, the famous composer, is buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey. He was born at Halle in Saxony in 1685, son of Georg and Dorothea, and died in London in 1759. He worked first at the opera house in Hamburg and spent several years in Italy before making his first visit to London in 1710. By 1717 he had settled permanently in England and in February 1727 was naturalized as an Englishman by Act of Parliament.
Handel made his reputation as a composer of Italian opera for the London stage, but like most composers of the period, he wrote music for a wide range of occasions and patrons. Some of his earliest works setting English words - a birthday ode for the Queen and a Te Deum and Jubilate in celebration of the Treaty of Utrecht - were performed before Queen Anne in 1713. The accession of George I caused Handel some embarrassment, however, for he had previously been employed by the new king in Germany (where George was Elector of Hanover) and had broken his terms of employment by remaining in England. Fortunately, the new monarch forgave Handel this misdemeanour and the composer enjoyed much royal patronage for the remainder of his life.
The works that associate Handel most closely with Westminster Abbey are the four anthems written for the coronation of George II in 1727. The best known, 'Zadok the Priest', has been used at every coronation since then, but all four continue to be regularly performed and recorded. Handel also wrote an anthem, 'The ways of Zion do mourn', for the funeral of Queen Caroline (George II's consort) who was buried in the Abbey in December 1737.
A less well-known link between Handel and the Abbey involves Esther, the composer's first oratorio, performed privately at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand in 1732 under the direction of Bernard Gates. Gates was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, but he was also a long-standing member of the Abbey's choir and had assembled a number of his Westminster colleagues to sing in the chorus.
Burial and dating on gravestone
Three days before his death in 1759 Handel signed a codicil to his will saying he hoped he might be buried in the Abbey and desired that his executor erect a monument for him. The funeral was attended by about 3,000 people and the choirs of the Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral and the Chapel Royal sang the service. Mr Gordin was the Undertaker and George Amyand paid the fees for the service and lead lined coffin (£45 5s. 6d) while Roubiliac paid the £25 to erect the monument and 6 guineas to lay down a gravestone.
His black marble gravestone in the south transept reads
"GEORGE FREDERIC HANDEL BORN YE 23 FEBRUARY 1684 DIED YE 14 OF APRIL 1759".
The coat of arms on his gravestone is now very worn. A 19th century history of the Abbey records that it shows "a demi-man couped, his left arm a-kimbo, his right holding up a bottle" (ie. the top half of a man's figure with one arm bent at the elbow and the other holding a bottle). The crest above is the same arms shown between two elephant trunks. It is not known why he chose these particular emblems for his coat of arms!
The date of his birth inscribed on the stone is not a mistake but is due to the fact that the new year in England at this period did not begin on 1 January but on 25 March (Lady Day). Therefore, to the contemporary Englishman, Handel was born in February 1684, as the year 1685 would not have begun until 25 March.
On the wall above his grave is a fine monument by the sculptor Louis Francois Roubiliac (with the same inscription as on the stone but with the dates in Roman numerals). The life-size statue, unveiled in 1762, is said to be an exact likeness as the face was modelled from a death mask. Behind the figure, among clouds, is an organ with an angel playing a harp. On the left of the statue is a group of musical instruments and an open score of his most well-known oratorio Messiah, composed in 1741. Directly in front of him is the musical score I know that my Redeemer liveth. The index finger of his left hand had been missing for a long time and a new one has recently been sculpted to replace it.
Above the monument a small additional tablet records the Handel festival or 'Commemoration' of 1784. This series of concerts of Handel's music was given in the Abbey by vast numbers of singers and instrumentalists and established a fashion for large-scale performances of Handel's choral works throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. The inscription reads:
"Within these sacred walls the memory of HANDEL was celebrated under the patronage and in the presence of his most Gracious Majesty GEORGE the III on the XXVI, and XXIX of May and on the III and V of June MDCCLXXXIV. The musick performed on this solemnity was selected from his own works under the direction of BROWNLOW Earl of Exeter, JOHN Earl of Sandwich, HENRY Earl of Uxbridge, Sir WATKIN WILLIAMS WYNN Bart. and Sir RICHARD JEBB Bart. The Band consisting of DXXV vocal & instrumental performers was conducted by JOAH BATES Esqr."
Photographs of the monument and gravestone can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004
"Handel: a celebration of his life and times" edited by Jacob Simon, 1985.
"Handel and the English Chapel Royal" by Donald Burrows, 2005
"The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia" edited by A.Landgraf and D.Vickers, 2009
"Handel the philanthropist" published by The Foundling Museum 2009 (exhibition catalogue)
"An account of the musical perfomances..in commemoration of Handel" by Charles Burney, 1785
"An account of the Royal Musical Festival in Westminster Abbey... 1834" by John Parry, 1834
"Roubiliac and the 18th century monument" by D.Bindman & M.Baker 1995
"The Marble Index - Roubiliac and sculptural portraiture in 18th century Britain " by M.Baker, 2014
Handel's house in London is now a Museum www.handelhouse.org
www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk to whom Handel was a benefactor
© Dean and Chapter of Westminster
Click on the images to enlarge