Hallelujah! The story of Handel’s Messiah

George Pratt tells the story behind Handel's best-loved oratorio, the Messiah

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 Hallelujah! The story of Handel’s Messiah
Hallelujah! The story of Handel’s Messiah
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For such an incredibly well-known work, the genesis of Handel's masterwork was remarkably humble...

After the London ‘season’ ended in 1741, Handel turned as usual to writing works for the next autumn. One of these was a setting of a new libretto by the literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare’s plays, Charles Jennens, who had provided the text for Saul four years earlier. He described Messiah as a ‘Scripture Collection’, a series of short extracts from the Authorised Version of the Bible, somewhat different from Handel’s usual preference for oratorios based on larger-than-life characters and dramatic stories from the Old Testament.

• Read more: The best recordings of Handel's Messiah

Handel, in debt and depressed as a result, began composition on Saturday 22 August 1741, completed drafts of each Part in about a week each, and ‘filled up’ the score in a couple more days, a total of 23 days for the complete work – an astonishing work-rate, even if some numbers were recycled from earlier music (why throw away good music after its public performances?).

It was so quick, in fact, that most of us would be hard-pressed simply to copy out the music, let alone conceive virtually all of it from scratch.

Jennens was suprised to hear that Messiah was not scheduled for first performance in London: he wrote in a letter ‘it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing it here he was gone into Ireland with it’.

Internal evidence from the score, though, suggests that Handel had it in mind for Dublin rather than for the more generous resources of London. It’s modestly scored, for just strings, trumpets and drums, and it only requires four soloists, one each of soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

The English music historian Dr Charles Burney claims that, as a 15-year-old boy at school in Chester, he saw Handel there, en route to Dublin, ‘[smoking] a pipe over a dish of coffee at the Exchange Coffee-House’. Handel asked Burney’s music teacher, the cathedral organist ‘whether there were any choirmen in the Cathedral who could sing at sight, as he wished to prove some books that had been hastily transcribed by trying the choruses which he intended to perform in Ireland’.

A bass, a printer named Jansen, was recommended to him and a rehearsal took place at the Golden Falcon where Handel was staying. Jansen failed miserably to cope with ‘And with his stripes’ from Messiah at which, says Burney, Handel, ‘after swearing at him in four or five different languages, cried out in broken English: “You shcauntrel, tid you not tell me zat you could sing at sight?”. “Yes sir”, says the printer, “and so I can, but not at first sight”’. Some scholars have cast doubt on this lively anecdote. To others it has a ring of truth if only because it seems qutie unlikely that a reputable writer such as Burney should simply invent it.

Handel arrived in Dublin from Holyhead on 18 November 1741 followed three days later by a soprano, Christina Maria Avolio, who sang for him during his stay in Dublin. He quickly set up a series of six subscription concerts including his Ode based on John Milton’s pastoral poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso in a newly built concert room in Fishamble Street (named after the fish ‘ambles’ or stalls in the market there). The concerts were an immediate success, Handel reporting that the subscribers filled ‘a Room of 600 Persons, so that I needed not sell one single Ticket at the door’. 

Attendances were no less in January, with such traffic jams that ‘Gentlemen and Ladies are desired to order their Coaches and Chairs to come down Fishamble Street, which will prevent a great deal of Inconvenience that happened the Night before’. Concert promotion was not without its problems though. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral had given approval for vicars-choral from the Cathedral choir to take part in Handel’s series. Suddenly, apparently the result of a failing memory (he was described as ‘dying from the top’), he rescinded the licence to ‘assist at a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street’, and required his ‘Sub-Dean and Chapter to punish such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy, and ingratitude’. Swift seems to have forgotten this change of heart as quickly as he first experienced it, and cathedral singers took part, potential ‘flagitious aggravations’ notwithstanding, in successful concerts from January onwards. 

The Dublin Journal of 27 March 1742, announcing the first performance of Messiah, stressed its charitable aims: ‘For 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 Inns Quay, on Monday the 12 April, will be performed at the Musick hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand oratorio, call’d the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.’

Tickets cost half a guinea each, about £45 in today’s money, but they also gave admission to the rehearsal on the 9 April which was received by ‘a most Grand, Polite and crouded Audience’. Presumably in response to such ticket sales, the Journal published an appeal on 10 April that: ‘The Ladies who honour this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without Hoops, as it will greatly encrease the Charity, by making room for more company’, and on the day of the performance, delayed until the 13 April, ‘The Gentlemen [were] desired to come without their Swords’, and for good reason – the ‘Musick hall’ designed for an audience of about 600, had 700 packed into it by midday, when the performance duly began.

Information about the performers for this inaugural performance is rather sketchy. Exact numbers of singers or orchestral players aren’t known. But the orchestra was certainly led by Matthew Dubourg, who moved from London to Dublin in 1728 and from then on divided his time between the two capital cities. He was a long-term friend of Handel who left him £100 in his will. They clearly seem to have enjoyed a wry joke or two together: on one occasion, after he had improvised an exceptionally long cadenza, Handel declared ‘Welcome home, Mr Dubourg!’.

Handel presumably directed the performance from the organ, his own portable-sized instrument which he had arranged to be brought to Dublin. Of the solo singers, the soprano was Christina Avolio of whom Handel wrote that ‘she pleases extraordinary’. His female alto was Susanna Maria Cibber, both actress and singer who, according to Charles Burney, ‘had captivated every hearer of sensibility by her native sweetness of voice and powers of expression’. She had fled to Dublin from London to escape the scandal of an adulterous affair and seems to achieved public absolution when one Rev. Dr. Delaney was moved to rise from his seat after her singing of ‘He was despised’ and exclaim ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven’.

The other soloists came from the Cathedral Choirs, and also sang in the chorus. This was relatively small. Handel may have called on up to 26 boy trebles from the two Cathedrals but, for the lower parts, the Handel scholar Donald Burrows has imaginatively counted up the known cathedral men, subtracted four who were probably ordained and so not permitted to engage in secular concerts, and come up with only around three or four singers to a part – the sort of chamber-music scale to which we’re refreshingly returning today.

The performance received rave reviews. The Dublin Journal reported: ‘…the best Judges allowed [Messiah] to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear’. For 268 years since, Messiah has remained pre-eminent among sacred oratorios. Through all its Classical additions by Mozart, gargantuan scoring by Sir Thomas Beecham, Crystal Palace renderings by casts of thousands (see Another fine Messiah overleaf), spontaneous ‘from scratch’ performances, up until more recent rediscovery of its original scale and character, it has never failed to ‘transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear’.

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