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Getting a Handel on our history

If there's a piece of music for Easter, then it's closely associated with Christmas -- Handel's Messiah. It's a December staple, for it's begins with the message of that season.

But when you delve deeper, and remember that Handel first staged his oratorio just a fortnight after Easter, then its significance becomes clear. It's not so much a celebration of Advent as a journey through the Christian year.

The story behind the Messiah would make for an opera all of its own. Handel had been based in London for many years, and he'd been hugely successful. He'd had royal commissions (his Water Music) and had gone on to compose anthems for the coronation of King George II.

And he was a canny financial operator. He made money out of what was known as the South Sea Bubble, getting out before the crash. He didn't rely solely on patronage; he was an impresario, sinking his own funds into productions at the theatre he ran in Covent Garden.

As well as the constant battle to fill his venue, Handel faced fierce criticism from church authorities who didn't like the way he'd take biblical material and put it on for secular audiences.

This eventually took its toll, not only on his finances, but on his health. He was just 56, at his wit's end, when two things happened.

First, an invitation came in from Dublin asking him to write something for a charity concert.

Then, his pal delivered a libretto based on the life of Christ that he felt would make a great musical. Handel had got his inspiration, and he'd got his stage. He finished the Messiah in just three weeks.

It was first staged in the New Music Hall in Fishamble St, just behind Christ Church in Dublin, on Tuesday April 13, 1742. It was a huge success, and raised funds for Mercer's Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary on Inns Quay, and enough money to free 142 men from the debtors' prison.

The oratorio that gave us the 'Hallelujah Chorus' also helped put Handel back on his feet. Its success encouraged him to stayed on in Dublin for some nine months, based in a guesthouse on Abbey St.

From there, he went out to play the organ and conduct, and make enough to banish the memory of the difficult days before the Messiah.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30am each Saturday morning ghamilton@independent.ie

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