Monday 19 August 2019

The huge star who arrived in Dublin in 1741

The biggest name in town: Georg Friedrich Händel
The biggest name in town: Georg Friedrich Händel

George Hamilton

We're all familiar with the notion of a scoop, that exclusive story that produces a headline that jumps off the newsstand. In 1741, they didn't do big banners, and the reports that they published weren't exactly up-to-the-minute, but there was still plenty of scope for one-upmanship.

It was a top celebrity's arrival in Dublin on this date that year that made the news. But the London Daily Advertiser missed it.

While the Advertiser was reporting that this eminent musician had indeed departed England's capital to cross the Irish Sea, two papers here had much more up-to-date information.

The exotically-named Pue's Occurrences reported "Wednesday last arriv'd here from London the celebrated Dr Handell." The Dublin Journal ran the story, noting he'd come "in the Packet-boat from Holyhead".

Given that it would have taken four or five days to get from London to Holyhead by stagecoach, the Daily Advertiser was distinctly behind the times.

The Dr Handell in question was none other than Georg Friedrich Händel. At 56, he was the biggest name in town.

Thirty-odd years previously, he'd arrived from Germany to try to make his way on the big stage. He succeeded by combining the composer's inspiration with the flair of an impresario.

His first effort - an opera, Rinaldo - was like nothing London had ever seen or heard. Its cast included a flock of live sparrows, let loose in the auditorium to provide authentic birdsong.

He took the place by storm. Commissioned by kings, his Water Music was composed for a royal cruise up the Thames. For another state occasion he wrote Music for the Royal Fireworks.

In between, he was creating operas and oratorios, and running a venue in Covent Garden where he staged his own productions.

But 30 years at the top of the tree had taken their toll. His health was suffering as he battled to stay ahead of the game.

He'd a new work on the stocks. His collaborator, Charles Jennens, had provided the script for what would become the Messiah. Händel completed the music in just three weeks.

But he was reluctant to take a chance with it in what had become challenging circumstances in London, much to the librettist's dismay.

"It was with some mortification to me," Jennens wrote to a friend "to hear that instead of performing Messiah here [in London] he was gone into Ireland with it."

Händel's music would have been well known to the concert-going public in Dublin. He knew he'd be well received.

He was invited to play the organ at a charity concert featuring his music which was held at the "Round Church" - St Andrew's which stood on the site of the former church near Grafton Street that's now the Central Tourist Office in Dublin.

There was a series of six "Musical Entertainments", there was opera, there were performances of a whole range of his music. And then, just after Easter, there was the event that's still commemorated today - the first performance of the Messiah.

Händel returned to London the following August. He'd remain at the forefront of music making there for another decade and a half.

He died in 1759 at the age of 74. Some 3,000 people attended his funeral in Westminster Abbey. He's buried there, in the south transept, his final resting place marked by a black marble stone.

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

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