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The English Concert – Handel: The Philanthropist

Members from The English Concert standing in a row holding their instruments

Handel was not only a great composer, he was also a man who took his social responsibilities very seriously, as this recreation of his 1749 Foundling Hospital fundraiser attests.

It was in 1749 that Handel offered to give a ‘Performance of Vocal and Instrumental Musick’ at the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, in support of the completion of the chapel there. The Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children had been formally established a decade earlier under a royal charter and overseen by the dogged endeavours of the philanthropist and retired sea-captain, Thomas Coram (whose name is honoured in Coram, the children’s charity that continues his work today). The organisation was undergoing an ambitious new building programme, expanding its site in the region where north London bordered the countryside.

It is uncertain exactly how Handel came to be involved with the hospital; he may have been aware of the involvement of connections such as the painter William Hogarth, who contributed to the institution, or the music publisher John Walsh, who had been elected a governor there in 1748. Handel, who was already compassionate by nature, may also have been influenced by an older, more deeply embedded consideration: childhood memories of Franke’s charitable foundation for children in Halle, the German city in which he was born and raised. Hogarth’s connection was not merely financial; many painters donated pictures to the hospital, which became, informally, one of London’s first public art galleries.

Handel made the offer of his performance on 4 May 1749 during a meeting at the Foundling Hospital. It was enthusiastically accepted, and he was invited to become a governor – but he declined on the grounds ‘that he should Serve the Charity with more Pleasure in his Way, than being a Member of the Corporation’. This may have reflected a certain modesty about his public profile, of a kind that had perhaps motivated his refusal of a doctorate at Oxford in 1733. However, Handel did become a Foundling Hospital governor in 1750, for which appointment the usual fee of £50 was waived. In the same year, he staged Messiah there, later bequeathing to the institution a fair copy of the score; over time it would receive over £1,000 from the proceeds of his concerts there, as well as an organ that Handel donated to the chapel.

The date of the 1749 Foundling Hospital concert was postponed several times to accommodate the attendance of royalty, eventually taking place at noon on 27 May in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. This connection was probably instrumental in securing a donation of £2,000 from the king – an eye-watering sum at the time. In addition to this, tickets were priced at half a guinea and the concert was attended by over 1,000 people, raising a large sum for the charity. The concert took place in the Foundling Hospital chapel, which was still under construction – but the absence of glass in the windows may have been welcome at a crowded event at midday in May. The Prince and Princess of Wales were joined by a gaggle of ‘young Princes and Princesses’, as well as ‘a prodigious Concourse of the Nobility and Gentry’.

Handel brought with him ‘above one Hundred Voices and Performers’ from his choirs and orchestras. The concert was modelled on the three-part format favoured in theatrical programmes of the time, and was relatively concise to fit the conventions of a matinee. The first section consisted of his Music for the Royal Fireworks (with its newly augmented strings but probably with reduced winds) and an Anthem on the Peace, a work from a recent Thanksgiving Service at the Chapel Royal. The second section (heard last in this concert) featured a selection of numbers from his oratorio Solomon, and the programme concluded with the Foundling Hospital Anthem, which opens with the text ‘Blessed are they that considereth the poor and needy’. The whole was rounded off with the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from Messiah – probably still unknown to most of the audience – and it may have been at this occasion that the custom of standing during this chorus, initiated by the Prince of Wales, was established.

The Music for the Royal Fireworks suite had been composed by Handel little more than a month earlier for a fireworks display staged by George II at Green Park in London on 27 April 1749. The event was mounted to celebrate the end of the Austrian War of Succession and the signing of a peace treaty, hence Handel’s inclusion of movements called ‘La Paix’ (‘The Peace’) and ‘La Réjouissance’ (‘Rejoicing’) alongside more conventional Baroque dances. The memorable music was more successful than the fireworks display itself, which was dampened by rain, caused one section of a pavilion – and a lady’s gown – to catch fire, and resulted in several unfortunate injuries.

For the Foundling Hospital Anthem Handel recycled earlier music including material from his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, the oratorio Susanna and Messiah. To an anonymous libretto inspired by the Old Testament’s King Solomon, Handel’s Solomon was composed almost exactly a year before the Foundling Hospital concert and features several celebrated numbers, including the famous ‘sinfonia’ that opens Act 3: ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’.

© Joanna Wyld

Programme and performers

George Frideric Handel 
Music for the Royal Fireworks
1. Overture
2. Bourrée
3. La Paix
4. La Réjouissance
5. Menuets I and II

Foundling Hospital Anthem
1. Aria: Blessed are they that considereth the poor 
and needy
2. Chorus: They deliver the poor that crieth
3. Aria: O God, who from the suckling’s mouth
4. Chorus: The charitables shall be had in everlasting 
5. Chorus: Comfort them, O Lord, when they are sick
6. Duet: The people will tell of their wisdom
7. Chorus: Hallelujah


Selection from Solomon
1. Overture
2. Your harps and cymbals sound
3. Praise ye the Lord
27. My sovereign liege
28. Words are weak
29. What says the other
30. Thy sentence, great king
31. Withhold
32. Can I see my infant gored?
33. Israel attend
34. Thrice blessed be the king
41. Symphony: The arrival of Queen of Sheba
58. May peace in Salem ever dwell
59. Will the sun forget to streak
53. Thrice happy king
54. Golden Columns
55. Praise the Lord

The English Concert
Harry Bicket conductor
Ann Hallenberg Solomon
Miah Persson Queen and First Harlot
Elena Villalón Queen of Sheba
Brandon Cedel Levite
James Way Zadok
Niamh O’Sullivan Second Harlot
The Clarion Choir
Steven Fox choir artistic director

Song texts

Artist biographies