April 13th 1742.
The Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin.
“For the relief of the prisoners in several gaols and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay, on Monday 12th April, will be performed at the Musick [sic] Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr Handel’s new grand oratorio called the Messiah in which the gentlemen of the choirs of both cathedrals will assist along with some concertos on the organ by Mr Handel.” So the advertisement for this new work read. It also asked women not to wear hoops in their dresses and for the gentlemen not to bring their swords so that more people could fit into the hall. Tickets were half a guinea each. The performance was put back a day after some “Good people of Dublin” asked for a deferment. 700 people attended the premiere and according to newspaper reports fully entered into the spirit of the evening. On being congratulated for entertaining his audience Handel is supposed to have replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. For I wish to make them better.”
So why Dublin and why the Messiah? Dublin was at this time one of the fastest growing and wealthy cities in Europe. Handel was also rather fed up with some of the receptions he had received from London audiences. He had also been invited to give a series of concerts by the Duke of Devonshire, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Handel had moved to London 1712 and became a British citizen in 1727. Having been born in Halle 1685, the same year as J.S. Bach, his father, a surgeon, had wanted George Frideric to be a lawyer. However the Duke of Weissenfels heard him playing the organ at the age of 11 and a career in music followed. At the age of 18 he had composed his first opera, Almira, and within five years had been a composer, musician and conductor in Rome, Florence, Naples, Venice as well as Germany, where the Elector of Hanover, the future George I of England, was briefly his patron.
Handel had worked with the librettist Charles Jennens before and Jennens approached him again with his latest idea. He was a literary scholar, educated at Balliol College, Oxford. However he never gained his degree or received the recognition he probably deserved due to his lack of support for the Hanoverian succession. The story that Jennens told was the entire life of Christ through the scriptures. The first part was the prophesy of the birth of Jesus told from the Old Testament books. The second part praised his sacrifice to humankind using the New Testament and the third and final part announced the resurrection, also using books from the New Testament. With illiteracy being widespread at the time and bibles being so expensive the idea appealed to Handel. The Cambridge University, Handel scholar, Ruth Smith, claimed that, “Messiah would be directed at people who had come to a theatre rather than a church during Easter week to remind them of their faith and possible fate.”
The work was written in just 24 days sometime between April and September 1741. At the end of the work Handel wrote, Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone the glory. The score that covered over 250 pages has been revised over the years for different groups and occasions. The premiere at the concert hall in Fishamble Street was to include the choirs of the two cathedrals, St Patrick’s and Christ Church. This was 16 men and 16 choristers accompanied by strings, 2 trumpets and timpani. Handel himself had his own organ shipped to Ireland. Initially the Dean of St Patrick’s cathedral, The Reverend Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, had initially refused to let the choir sing, as he was unsure about the venue and the work. He was also unhappy about the presence of the famous contralto, Susannah Cibbens, who was embroiled in a scandalous divorce at the time. He called her, “A woman of loose morals”. He later relented.
The evening was a great success and £127 was raised for the causes, a not inconsiderable sum at the time. Miss Cibber gave a performance of such beauty that another clergyman, Reverend Delaney, reportedly stood up after she sang the aria “He was despised” and shouted out, “Woman, thy sins are forgiven.” When it was performed in London in March 1743, again with Miss Cibber, the reviews were much less favourable and the number of performances was cut from 6 to 3. The tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus is supposed to stem from the time when George II stood for it when he heard it in London. When he stood up the rest of the audience was obliged to follow suit and this tradition has remained ever since. Some think that the reason for this was that his foot had gone to sleep. Others say he was so moved by the work’s power and glory that he felt moved to stand. Others say that this never happened at all and there is no contemporary evidence of George II ever having attended a performance of the Messiah. It was not until 1750, when it became customary to perform it for charity at the Foundling Hospital, did it start its rise to prominence to become one of the best-known choral works ever written.