It was something of a happy accident that one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written was first performed in Dublin two hundred and seventy-one years ago. The stirring Messiah, by George Friedrich Handel, heard for the first time in Mr.Neale’s Great Musick Hall on Fishamble street, should have been premiered in London, but Dublin happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Handel had been invited to perform a season of concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741-42 by William Cavendish, the 3rdDuke of Devonshire, then serving as Irish Lord Lieutenant. After not one, but two, highly successful seasons at Fishamble Street, Handel decided to arrange a charity concert for the benefit of prisoner’s debt relief, Mercer’s Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmiary. The piece he chose to perform was a little piece he had brought with him from London, an oratorio for massed choir and orchestra.
The text for Messiah had been written first, by one Charles Jennens, a great admirer of Handel. The music had then been composed, and the score notated in an astonishing twenty-four days. Jennens was really looking forward to first hearing his words set to music in a gala performance in London, and was rather miffed to discover that the piece would debut in the rather more provincial setting of Dublin instead.
Handel secured the services of the choirs of St. Patrick’s and Christchurch cathedrals for the occasion. He also engaged Christina Maria Avoglio for the soprano parts, and Susannah Cibber as contralto. The latter piece of casting could have aroused more controversy than it did. Cibber, daughter-in-law of the playwright Colley Cibber, was to all intents and purposes, hiding out in Dublin to avoid the consequences of a messy and scandalous divorce. Handel would not have got away with engaging her for a performance in London.
A public rehearsal of the oratorio created a huge buzz around the city and it was clear that the concert hall would be packed for the actual performance. Word of mouth, then as now, was vitally important for the box office in Ireland. To accommodate as many patrons as possible men were asked not to carry their swords, and women were requested not to wear hoops under their dresses. Seven hundred people squeezed in and gave the oratorio an enthusiastic reception, far more positive than its subsequent London premiere. But perhaps they were just being provincial!
So overcome was one audience member, Rev.Patrick Delany, at Cibber’s rendition of ‘he was despised and rejected of men’ that he leapt out of his seat and shouted ‘woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven’. It might have been more consoling if it had come from her ex!
The performance raised over £400, that would be worth not far off a million pounds today. The distribution of the proceeds resulted in the release of over one hundred and forty debtors from prison.
Handel went on to stage a second show entirely for his own financial benefit, but the premiere of Messiah took place on 13 April, 1742, 271 years ago, on this day.