Why the premiere of Handel's Messiah took place in Dublin over London
In 1742 Handel’s Messiah made its debut in Dublin to much acclaim - but why did the composer choose Ireland over London?
Last Wednesday, the celebrated Dr Handell arrived here in the Packet-boat from Holyhead, a Gentleman universally known by his excellent Compositions in all kinds of Musick.’ So ran a short news announcement in The Dublin Journal, days after Handel’s disembarkment in the city on 18 November 1741.
What was Handel doing in Dublin, when for 30 years London had been his main centre of operations? It was possibly the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who invited him. If so, it was a timely intervention: Handel’s last three operas had failed, and he was at a low ebb both personally and professionally.
Two months before leaving London, Handel had completed Messiah, a new oratorio on the life of Christ and its theological significance. The author of its text, Charles Jennens, came up to London in late November 1741, apparently to get an update from Handel on the Messiah project. ‘But it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing it here he was gone into Ireland with it,’ he wrote tetchily.
Messiah was not, however, the first piece Handel presented in Dublin. In a subscription series of ‘Six Musical Entertainments’ at the recently built ‘New Musick Hall’ in Fishamble Street, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Acis and Galatea and Esther were among the vocal works performed to great acclaim. A second series of six concerts in February 1742 was equally successful. At this point, Handel, riding a wave of acclamation from his Dublin audience, finally unpacked his score of Messiah. A charity premiere was mooted, ‘for relief of the prisoners in the several gaols’ of Dublin and for two hospitals. This occurred on 13 April 1742, at the same hall used for the subscription series.
The performance began at noon and was packed beyond the venue’s normal capacity of 600. To squeeze an extra hundred in, women were asked ‘to come without hoops’ in their dresses and gentlemen ‘without their swords’. Around 30 to 40 performers took part, most of the singers ‘borrowed’ from Dublin’s St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals, and with strings, trumpets and timpani in the orchestra. Handel himself accompanied on an organ, perhaps his own imported from London.
Messiah’s premiere that April afternoon was ecstatically received by ‘the Lords Justices, and a vast Assembly of the Nobility and Gentry of both Sexes’ who attended. ‘Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded’ reported the Dublin Journal. The contralto Susannah Cibber’s aria ‘He was despised’ drew particular attention from the Reverend Patrick Delaney– knowing Cibber had recently been entangled in an adulterous affair in London, he exclaimed, ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!’.
Financially, Messiah was also highly successful. Tickets were half a guinea each, and £400 in total (worth nearly £100,000 today) was raised for the three charities. A second performance was added on 3 June, this time for the composer’s own benefit, and billed as ‘the last Performance of Mr Handel’s, during his stay in this Kingdom’.
Handel left Ireland two months later, planning to return. He never did, but always retained fond memories of ‘that generous and polite Nation’. The feeling is mutual: every 13 April since 1992, a choir has gathered on the spot where Messiah was first performed in Fishamble Street, to perform selections from his masterwork. The original ‘New Musick Hall’ eventually became an engineering works before being levelled for residential development. Only its archway remains standing today.