Tuesday 17 January 2017

Classical: Handel's 'Messiah' at the heart of Easter

George Hamilton

Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30

The old Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, immortalised by its claim to be the first venue for a performance of Handel's 'Messiah' in 1742.
The old Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, immortalised by its claim to be the first venue for a performance of Handel's 'Messiah' in 1742.

It being Easter, it seems entirely appropriate that the ­spotlight should fall on Handel's Messiah. Though it's firmly established in the musical mind as being part and parcel of the Christmas festivities, it is in fact a celebration of the whole of the Christian year, and only the first of its three parts is specifically concerned with Advent.

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Its première, in Dublin just after Easter in 1742, probably had as much to do with business as anything else. Handel was based in London at the time. He'd been hugely successful there.

There were royal commissions from his Fireworks and Water Music to coronation anthems. He ran a theatre in Covent Garden where he put on his own productions.

He was also pretty financially astute. He'd invested well in what became known as the South Sea Bubble, and had got out before the crash. But things were no longer going quite so well. There was stiff competition developing from rival venues. And the church authorities were on his case. They didn't like the way he mixed religious themes with music for a secular audience.

Dublin was as good a place as any to set about reviving his fortunes. It was the second biggest city in these parts and it had a reputation for appreciating its music. When an invitation arrived to come over, it was a no-brainer.

Handel crossed the Irish Sea in the run-up to Christmas 1741 with the unpublished score of the Messiah in his luggage.

He'd written it in just three weeks over the previous summer, but, no longer quite the flavour of the month in London, he'd been reluctant to take his chances with it there.

From a base in Abbey Street, he launched a series of subscription concerts in a recently-opened Dublin venue, the New Music Hall in Fishamble Street, a narrow lane that runs down to the Liffey from just behind Christ Church Cathedral.

This was one of the first concert halls in Britain or Ireland, and Handel's music helped enormously in establishing its reputation.

The success of this venture was enough to convince Handel that Dublin would take to his Messiah. A date was set.

Just like this year, Easter was early in 1742. Handel chose a Tuesday lunchtime, three weeks after, for the first performance, but from the reaction he got when he announced it, he must felt that he was back in London.

Jonathan Swift, the Dean of St Patrick's, was on the same page as the clergy back there. There was no place for church music in a theatre. He banned his choristers from taking part.

Handel got around this by declaring the event a charity concert. His profile brought a packed house, with takings to match. The proceeds were substantial enough to provide funds for the Charitable Infirmary, Mercer's Hospital and for the Society for Relieving Prisoners. They were able to secure the release of 142 debtors from jail.

Dublin is still very fond of its Messiah, with regular performances at both Christmas and Easter.

To honour the anniversary of the première, Our Lady's Choral Society returns to the venue each year with its Messiah on the Street.

The Dublin Handelian Orchestra with Proinnsías Ó Duinn conducting leads them through excerpts of the oratorio at the site where it was first staged in Fishamble Street 274 years ago.

Wednesday, April 13, is the date for this year's free open-air lunchtime concert. I'll remind you on the radio nearer the time.

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