Handel’s Messiah has been inspiring audiences ever since it was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742. But it did not become the most famous work in the classical choral repertoire without encountering some bumps along the road.
To begin with, the oratorio was a bit of a comeback for the composer, who had achieved fame earlier in the century because of the English taste for Italian-style opera. For thirty years, Handel supplied London audiences with this type of music. And they received his operas enthusiastically, especially Julius Caesar and Xerxes.
But by about 1740, English musical taste was shifting away from the Italian opera, helped along by some of Britain’s most famous writers. (Jonathan Swift, for example, condemned the genre as “Italian nonsense.”) Overtaking the opera, the oratorio was coming into vogue. Oratorios still delivered drama but without the staging and costume concerns of opera, and they gave audiences a chance to hear choral music sung in the King’s English.
Some say that Handel was slow to catch on to this trend and was in reduced financial circumstances when, in early August of 1741, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (William Cavendish) invited him to Dublin. Handel was to stage a series of concerts featuring his music. Shortly after this invitation—and in just 24 days!—Handel composed the Messiah. He worked from an already completed libretto compiled by Charles Jennens, a literary scholar and editor who had previously furnished Handel with texts for Saul and L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato.
Before hearing about the opportunity in Ireland, however, Handel appears to have been reluctant to set Jennens’s script to music. In a letter to his friend Edward Holdsworth, written 10 July 1741, Jennens bemoans Handel’s initial attitude to the project:
Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.
What a difference a few weeks, an invitation from a duke, and some performance opportunities make! Handel left for Ireland during the first week of November, carrying with him the completed Messiah.
Plans for the first performance of the oratorio went ahead, in spite of the initial objections of Jonathan Swift, who was, by then, Dean of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. At the time, cathedral musicians were increasingly performing outside of the church, which was causing tension. Swift had discovered that members of St. Patrick’s choir had “presumed to sing and fiddle at a Club of Fiddlers in Fishamble-street”— and without his permission! Unfortunately, this was the very theatre, Neale’s New Music Hall in Fishamble Street, where Handel’s Messiah was scheduled to premiere.
Objections were overcome, however, when the authorities of both St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral granted permission for their choristers to sing the Messiah in aid of three Dublin charities.
Ever the showman, Handel announced with great fanfare that his new oratorio, the climax of the Dublin season, would premiere on April 13, 1742. He then cannily arranged for a free public rehearsal on April 9. As a result, he was turning eager listeners away from the Messiah’s first official performance. And reviews were good, exceptionally good:
Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick, and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.
The oratorio’s first performances in London were not so successful. Some objected because it was presented in theatres by singers associated with the stage. It took another series of charity performances to establish the Messiah’s reputation as a “sacred oratorio.” In 1750, Handel gave the first of these performances at the newly constructed chapel of London’s Foundling Hospital, an agency devoted to the care of abandoned children. By the time of Handel’s death in 1759, Messiah had been performed 56 times. Interestingly, all but 12 performances were in secular venues.
Since then, the oratorio has been performed innumerable times, often in aid of charities. Even eighteenth-century musicologist Charles Burney commented on its popularity and beneficial effects: “this great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan, and enriched succeeding managers of the oratorios, more than any single production in this or any other country.”
The first Canadian performance of at least part of this work may have been in 1789 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Halifax, where “several Gentlemen with Musick Bands of the Regiments” sang the final chorus. Extracts were also performed at Quebec City in 1793, but the first documented and virtually complete Canadian performance didn’t occur until 1857—again at Quebec City. The Sacred Harmonic Choir of Toronto premiered the work in Upper Canada—appropriately, around Christmas in 1857.
Today, Handel’s Messiah is performed around the world, especially in December. (Beijing’s top choir, The International Festival Chorus, perform their annual rendition at the Forbidden City Concert Hall!) And it is one of the few works that can claim a continuous history of performance from its genesis to the present day.
So be sure to participate in this great musical tradition! Attend the Messiah right here in Peterborough, and hear the 100+ voices of the Peterborough Singers join with those of internationally renowned soloists in the rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” and the majestic and reverent “Amen.”