Performances of Handel’s great Oratorio, “Messiah”, has become a traditional Christmas favourite in recent decades, but that is not how it was first celebrated. In fact, the very first public performance of the work took place in Dublin just after Easter in 1742. George Frideric Handel had been living in England for some time, but his popularity had waned somewhat by 1841, so he accepted an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to settle in Dublin and present a series of concerts there.
So it was that one of his most famous compositions, completed around the time he left for Dublin, had its premiere performance in the Great Musick Hall in Fishamble Street on April 13, 1842, attended by 700 people of the best social class. The expected attendance was so large that a public notice was issued beforehand requesting women not to wear the fashionable hoops in their dresses, and that men would forbear wearing swords.
It may seem strange that the great sacred Oratorio was first performed in a Music Hall, of all places, and there was a certain unease felt by the Anglican clergy in Dublin, especially since it was the two choirs from Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral that were used in the performance. The Dean of St. Patrick’s at the time was Jonathan Swift, author of “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal”. In spite of his reservations about using his choir, which he personally picked and supervised, in a public music hall, Swift was in doubt about Handel himself. When the two men met, although Swift was in his last confused years, he remarked: “O! A German and a genius. A prodigy! Admit him.”
The first performance of “Messiah” was a fundraiser for three Dublin charities: prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercer’s Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. Cost of admission to the Hall was half a guinea, or about $117 in today’s prices, quite a large amount and the reason only the upper classes could afford to attend. But £400 was raised for the charities, the equivalent to around $9,500 today, a very welcome windfall for prisoners and hospitals in Dublin in 1742, and securing the release of 142 indebted prisoners.
The premiere of “Messiah” involved the two cathedral choirs, a total of 16 men and 16 boy choristers; several of the men were allocated solo parts. Two women sang the female solo parts: Christina Maria Avoglio, and Susannah Cibber, an established stage actress. The orchestra comprised strings, two trumpets, and timpani. Handel had his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performances; a harpsichord was probably also used. The orchestra was led by Matthew Dubourg, who had come to Ireland as the Lord Lieutenant’s band master.
A second performance of “Messiah” was held on June 3, 1742, this time the proceeds went directly to Handel. He stayed in Ireland for another two months before returning to London in August. It was not until the following year that “Messiah” was performed there, and, surprisingly, it was not a success. It was not until 1750 that it was performed to an appreciative audience in England. The tradition of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus was said to have begun when King George stood at a performance, but there is no evidence that he ever attended a performance and the first reference to standing at that point comes from 1756.
That first “Messiah”, some 277 years ago this week, is celebrated in Dublin to this day. The Musick Hall in Fishamble Street is long gone, though a plaque on the site records the historic concert of April, 1742.