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Handel’s Connection to Child Welfare

In 18th– century England, it was up to the composer to rent the theatre, hire the singers and musicians and pay for costumes and scenery.  Profits were hard to come by and the Italian operas Handel had been writing in the early years of his London career were falling out of fashion.  In developing the English oratorio, the composer found a way to capitalize on the power of an orchestra, soloists and a choir of voices, while dispensing with the need for expensive sets, costumes and props.

Oratorios, however, still required a large performing venue. Messiah premiered in Dublin in April 1742 in a charitable performance. For the London premier the following year, Handel rented the Covent Garden Theatre for a week’s run. Although a popular form of entertainment, the theatre was considered disreputable by most and event sacrilegious by some, and was deemed an inappropriate place to perform the sacred story of Messiah.

Had it not been for a newly established children’s charity, a well-loved and famous choral work could have shared the fate of many of Handel’s operas and faded into obscurity. For, without the Foundling Hospital, Messiah would have been silenced.

In 1749, Handel who was a governor of the Foundling Hospital, offered to stage a concert to pay for the building of a Chapel on the Hospital premises. The concert which included excerpts from Messiah, was a huge success. The following year, he returned to the chapel to conduct a second benefit concert for the charity. This time he chose Messiah. The event was so oversubscribed – wealthy supporters had to be turned away on the night – that Handel was asked to repeat the concert two weeks later.

Thereafter, Messiah was performed each year in the Foundling Hospital chapel, for the benefit of the charity, a tradition that continued until the 1770’s. Handel conducted or attended every performance until his death in 1759. These concerts raised thousands of pounds (sterling) – millions in today’s currency – and established Messiah as a central work in the English repertoire.

As a final act of generosity, Handel left in his will a fair copy of the Messiah score to the governors of the Foundling Hospital, thus enabling the charity to continue staging the benefit concerts – which they could not have done without the performing parts available for them to use. The score and parts were delivered to the hospital three weeks after Handel’s death, and can be seen today on display in the Foundling Museum (UK), alongside his original will.
             Excerpts from 2014 article in The Guardian, by Caro Howell, Director, Foundling Museum

Coram, UK’s first dedicated children’s charity, was established by Thomas Coram as the Foundling Hospital in 1739. Built in a location of London surrounded by fields, the Foundling Hospital was London’s first home for babies whose mothers were unable to care for them.

Mothers brought their babies to the Foundling Hospital to be cared for, with many hopeful that their financial circumstances would change so they could one day reclaim them. The Hospital arranged for foster families to care for the babies and young children until the age of five. They were then brought to live and be educated in the Foundling Hospital until the age of 15, many being trained for domestic or military service.

Every child admitted to the Foundling Hospital was baptized and given a new name. Mothers also left a token such as a coin or button which could be used to identify their child if they returned to reclaim them.

The Foundling Hospital Collections: http://www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk/

Children of the Foundling Hospital:
http://www.coram.org.uk/our-heritage-foundling-hospital/children-foundling-hospital

Tokens of Love: http://www.coram.org.uk/our-heritage-foundling-hospital/love-tokens

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