Newswire » Local History » Handel’s Messiah. A Dublin History

Handel’s Messiah. A Dublin History

Handel’s Messiah. A Dublin History – Patrick Ryan looks at the history of Handel’s Messiah, one of Dublin’s most famous pieces of music.

When it comes to a list of the great musical performances in Dublin some acts are nailed-on certainties.

U2, Thin Lizzy, Sinead O’Connor, The Dubliners, Riverdance – the list goes on. Ye know yerself.

Yet it seldom contains the name of a former violin player, a barber’s son who once fought a duel after an argument about an opera (a button on his tunic blocked a fatal thrust from the other swordsman), a giant in music who argued with Johnathan Swift and was adored by the hoi polloi where his greatest work premiered, Dublin’s Liberties, on April 13th, 1742.

Despite his creative genius, a royal patron who guaranteed his popularity in fashionable society, wealth, and international fame from Italian operas like Agrippina and Rinaldo, by his early 50’s George Frideric Handel was skint, sick, and tired of the city he’d lived in since 1711.

Thanks to the backing from King George I who had supported him from early in his career, the German’s genius with quaver and clef helped establish London as a major centre in popular music and a serious rival to Paris and Vienna, as he created a pan-European orchestra of brilliant musicians and a choir made up of some of the finest classical opera singers of the age.

None of this counted for much when Frederick, Prince of Wales decided to upstage his father and set up a rival opera company, as public tastes changed and Handel’s singers deserted him, leaving the composer overworked, exhausted and bankrupt, leading to a mild stroke. The man was, in Liberties terminology, not only in a jocker but completely banjaxed.

In 1728 The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay was a huge hit with London society, combining comedy and political satire, focusing on the lives of thieves and prostitutes, with contemporary and traditional English, Irish, Scottish, and French tunes in contrast to the formality of the Italian form which Handel, more than anyone, had promoted.

The astute Handel noted this change and emerged with a fresh genre in music which paved the way for Dublin’s Messiah.

Deborah and Athalia was the first of these lighter dramatic “oratorios” in English in 1733, and this change found favour with newly-formed choirs in Ireland and Britain, and the professional classes who looked on Italian-style opera as inaccessible and rather immoral.

You could keep your randy Italians, foreign languages and lusty lotharios – John Bull voted with his feet for English oratorios ahead of foreign muck, and these large-scale musical compositions for solo voices, a chorus, and an orchestra, typically dramatizing a biblical story, but without stage or acting – think more audiobook or radio than TV or movie, in modern terms – offered Handel a new outlet for his enormous creativity in this baroque (stylish, heavily embelished) form.

Seeking a challenge and eager to top up his bank account in 1742 he accepted an invitation from Lord Devonshire, Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant, to come to Dublin and in his summer here fell in love with our capital. Impressed by it’s friendliness and intrigued by the quality of traditional music he quickly struck up friendships including with a Mr Hill, a Liberties music publisher based in Cork Street.

Following sometimes-difficult negotiations with Johnathan Swift, Dean of the nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral, and other figures in the city the composer eventually secured an agreement that his sixth oratorio Messiah, written the previous year, would be performed on April 13th at the Music Rooms on Fishamble Street featuring boys from both St Patrick’s and Christ Church’s choirs, in aid of a number of worthy Irish causes including prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercer’s Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary.

Rehearsals went well and demand for tickets far exceeded supply, boosted by a juicy sex scandal Louis Walsh could only dream of. The star soloist of the show, the normally prim and proper mezzo-soprano Susanna Cibber had recently been accused by her husband in court of having an affair with their lodger (though some stories suggested he had forced her to sleep with the man at gunpoint, and others that the trio had been part of what today might be called a “trouple”) to the glee of gossips.

To create more space gentlemen were instructed to leave their swords at home, and ladies urged to forego their fashionable hooped skirts, meaning 700 people squeezed into the 600-seat venue for the world premiere, leaving the audience breathless in every sense of the word.

“Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!” exclaimed Swift’s friend Dr Patrick Delany, Chancellor of St Patrick’s, upon hearing Cribber’s enchanting solos.

A second performance left Dubliners gasping, and cheering, once again before the composer left to return to London in August that year, but despite his success in Ireland he found audiences in that city less enthusiastic with Sheena Vernon noting in her 2014 book Messiah: Love, Music and Malice at a Time of Handel: ”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.”

Yet the composer persevered, registering many more hits including Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), celebrating the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which solved the War of the Austrian Succession,  before his death and burial at Poet’s Corner in London in 1759 by which time as the Encyclopaedia Britannica comments: “Handel’s music became an indispensable part of England’s national culture.”

In many ways though the composer was truly cosmopolitan, a European in every sense.

The German, heavily influenced by Italian opera with notes of French flair, thoroughly embraced the lives and loves of the English for half-a-century, yet nearly 400 years on it is a street in Dublin’s Liberties rather than the storied environs of London’s Covent Garden that remain inseparably linked to one of the most famous pieces of music ever composed.

Leave a Reply

© 1991-2014 Fountain Resource Group Ltd. · Registered Company Number: 193051C · RSS · Website designed by Solid Website Design