Handel in Tunbridge Wells

The earliest reference to Handel visiting Tunbridge Wells appears in his letter to Charles Jennens in July 1735. Jennens had sent a libretto (probably Saul) to Handel in London, and Handel wrote: “I am just going to Tunbridge, … I shall have more leisure time there to read it with all the Attention it deserves”.

It is likely that at this time Handel was visiting the town more for its social scene and entertainments than for medical reasons, this also being the year when Beau Nash took over as Master of Ceremonies. According to Samuel Derrick (Nash’s successor) “the best musical performers of the age, often come down hither from London, and form elegant concerts, for which they are generally well paid”. Derrick was less complimentary about the fiddlers “scraping away” in the Music Gallery on the Pantiles during the hours of water-drinking – “I cannot say they yield very delightful strains.”

Nash’s Rules and Regulations recommended, among rules for dancing, card-playing and donating to the water-dippers, that visitors should make voluntary contributions to pay for the minister at King Charles the Martyr; “It is hoped he may rely with confidence for the reward of his labours, on the benevolence of those who reap the benefit of them”. Handel evidently followed this advice as his name appears in the subscription list for the Church of King Charles the Martyr in 1755.

Charles Burney wrote in 1785 that during the last years of his life, Handel constantly attended public prayers, twice a day, winter and summer, both in London and Tunbridge Wells. William Coxe reported that that during his visit in 1755 Handel had a quarrel with John Christopher Smith senior (Handel’s first copyist in London who he summoned from Germany in 1712). Smith left Handel “in an abrupt manner, which so enraged him, that he declared he would never see him again”, though Handel stayed friends with his son who acted his secretary and amanuensis and conducted the performances of his late oratorios.

The last references to Handel visiting Tunbridge Wells are in August 1758, when he is mentioned as being with William Morrell, librettist of Judas Maccabeus and other late oratorios. On this occasion Handel underwent couching (a form of cataract treatment) at the hands of John “Chevalier” Taylor, a notorious travelling oculist. (Taylor had in 1750 performed a botched operation on JS Bach in Leipzig, leaving Bach continuously ill for six months afterwards). Taylor celebrated the operation in his ode “On the Recovery of the Sight of the Celebrated Mr Handel, by the Chevalier Taylor”. One of the opening verses reads: “Great Father of Music and every Science / In all our Distresses, on thee our reliance; / Know then, in yon villa, from pleasures confin’d, / Lies our favourite, Handel, afflicted and blind.” The poetry does not improve, and neither did Handel’s eyesight. Later in his diaries Taylor admitted that “upon drawing the curtain” (i.e. removing the supposed cataract) the back of the eye was found to be “defective, from a paralytic disorder”.

The 1985 television film “God Rot Tunbridge Wells!”, written by John Osborne, portrays Handel’s riposte to an appalling performance of Messiah by the Tunbridge Wells Ladies Music Circle, but sadly there is no historical foundation to this scene.

Programme notes by Patrick Glencross

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