Rejection and rehabilitation: Why Handel’s Messiah was premièred in Dublin

Published in Editorial, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Volume 23

Above: George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner, 1727.

Above: George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner, 1727.

Many readers will hear Handel’s Messiah at the annual performance by Our Lady’s Choral Society on Fishamble Street, which, this April, will be part of Dublin’s first Handel Festival. Few, I suspect, will be familiar with the story of rejection and rehabilitation that lies behind it—in particular, why it was that a German, who had made London his home, should choose to give the first performance of his enduring masterpiece in Dublin.

Handel was, in every sense of the word, a celebrity. He landed in London in 1711, after living in Italy and familiarising himself with every aspect of Italian opera. His timing was impeccable: he arrived just as the aristocratic taste for all things Italian was in full flow and the British parliament had invited an obscure Hanoverian elector, for whom he had worked, to become their next king. That Georg Ludvig couldn’t speak English was less important than the fact that he was Protestant and that his grandmother had been James I’s daughter.

With royal backing, Handel became director of London’s opera house and made the capital’s music the rival of Paris and Vienna. He did so by importing talent: violinists from Germany; horn-players from Romania; singers and librettists from Italy. He became an entrepreneur just at a time when this new type of animal was staking out London’s playhouses and pleasure gardens.

After years of success, however, two issues conspired against him. His Italian singers, with whom he regularly had rows, turned against him, led by Senesino, Handel’s principal castrato. At the same time, the Hanoverian tradition of elder sons hating their fathers claimed Handel as collateral damage. Frederick, Prince of Wales, couldn’t forgive his parents for deserting him as a child, and to spite them he set up a rival opera company. As a result, Handel was deserted, en masse, by his singers and, in 1734, kicked out of the opera house.

In 1737, owing to overwork, he had a paralytic fit. As he lay speechless in bed, you could be forgiven for thinking he was finished. Yet he resurrected himself. He created a new genre—the dramatic oratorio sung in English. This appealed to an up-and-coming audience of businessmen and professionals to whom the Italian opera seemed exotic and immoral. The oratorios inspired choirs to spring up across Britain and Ireland, smashing the glass ceiling of ‘serious’ music being London music. In 1741, at the age of 56, he wrote the greatest oratorio of them all.

So why was Messiah premièred in Dublin? Laden with debt and sick of the harping of the news sheets, he accepted an invitation from the lord lieutenant, Lord Devonshire, and packed in his luggage the score of a piece of music he had written in ten weeks over the preceding summer. Handel adored Dublin. He liked the generosity of spirit, the easy openness of the people, and probably the intimacy—remember that the second city of the empire was only then beginning to spread beyond its med-ieval origins. He also loved Ireland’s traditional music, spending much time with a music publisher on Cork Street, a Mr Hill.

During the ten months he spent in retreat here he did something rather naughty. Without a word to the librettist of Messiah, a pompous industrialist named Charles Jennens, he agreed that its first performance would be at the Music Society’s rooms in Fishamble Street, using choristers and soloists from the two cathedrals. This involved tricky negotiations with the dean of St Patrick’s, Jonathan Swift, who, by his own admission, ‘knew as much about music as a Muscovite’. The beneficiaries of the concert were to include a charity supporting debtors.

When the morning of 13 April 1742 dawned, the 700 or so who had fought to get tickets for the 600-seat venue were not to know that history was about to be made. To create more space the women had been asked to come without hoops, the men without swords. Many, I suspect, wanted to gawp at the mezzo-soprano Susanna Cibber, who was in flight from London; usually the player of women of virtue, she had received unwelcome publicity when taken to court by her husband for adultery with their lodger. Handel would have cared little about the uproar created by her case, only about the emotive power of her voice.

Such was the success of the concert that it led to a second a few weeks later. Before leaving that August, Handel promised to return, but he never did. Instead, he struggled again with fickle London audiences, who took a decade to fall in love with Messiah: in Dublin they loved it from the start.

Sheena Vernon is the author of Messiah: love, music and malice at a time of Handel (Top Hat Books, 2014).

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