Thursday 18 April 2019

Hallelujah! How Dublin saved Handel

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


George Hamilton

Easter was early in 1742, and April 13 fell on a Tuesday. The connection is the Messiah, which had its premiere then in Dublin.

The capital's place at the centre of this particular piece of musical history was the result of a combination of circumstances that had little to do with planning.

George Frideric Handel, born in Germany just a month before Bach but based in London, was a huge name in what was then the second biggest city in Britain and Ireland.

He'd come to town for a series of concerts, and with him in his baggage he had the score for a newly composed theatrical work, one inspired by a friend of his, an evangelical Christian and patron of the arts by the name of Charles Jennens.

Concerned by what he perceived as a falling off in religious observance, Jennens had written the script for a version of the biblical story.

It was meant for Easter week, to reach audiences who'd come to a theatre instead of going to church.

Following previous collaborations, Handel was the obvious choice to set this to music.

The score was completed in little over three weeks in the summer of 1741, but there had been no room in Handel's diary for a first performance before he headed across the Irish Sea.

Jennens arrived in London delighted to learn that his Messiah had been completed, but less than happy to learn that Handel was no longer in town.

"It was some mortification to me," Jennens wrote, "that instead of performing it here he was gone into Ireland with it."

The enormous success of the concerts in Dublin convinced Handel that this was the place to present his show-piece.

Tickets, which went on sale for the performance scheduled for Monday April 12, came with a pass for the rehearsal the preceding Friday.

There had a bit of a crisis when the Dean of St Patrick's - the redoubtable Jonathan Swift, who didn't approve of bringing religion into the theatre - refused permission for his choristers to sing.

They got him onside by staging the event as a charity concert "for the relief of the prisoners in the several Gaols and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn's Quay".

The rehearsal went so well that demand for the premiere soared. To such an extent that, to accommodate as many as possible, gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home and ladies were requested not to wear hoops in their skirts.

The performance was put back by a day. The New Music Hall in Fishamble Street had a capacity of 600 - 700 people crammed in.

Handel directed from the organ, a portable instrument that had travelled with him from London and £400 was raised, an enormous sum, the equivalent of €100,000 in today's money. Among those to benefit were the 142 released from the debtors' prison.

The response was so positive, the oratorio was staged again soon after, this time as a commercial enterprise by the composer.

He'd come to Dublin in less than sound financial shape - his opera company had folded - but the resounding success of his Messiah proved a turning point.

Handel died in London in 1759, his fame assured. A black marble gravestone marks the spot where he is buried in Westminster Abbey.

* George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday

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