Written by Dr. Paul Collins of
Mary Immaculate College Music Department
Dublin audiences were no strangers to the music of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) in 1741, when the composer arrived in Ireland at the invitation of the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1737. Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea, for example had received the first of many Dublin performances on 1 May 1734, in Crow Street music hall. The Halle-born composer arrived in Dublin from London via Chester on 18 November 1741 and took lodgings in Abbey Street. He had just completed what was to become his most famous work, the oratorio Messiah, composed between 22 August and 14 September. Handel’s librettist, wealthy Leicestershire squire Charles Jennens (1700-73), had also collaborated with the composer in the writing of Saul (1739), L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740) and Belshazzar (1745). The first performance of ‘Mr. Handel’s new Grand Sacred Oratorio’ took place in the New Musik Hall in Fishamble Street on 13 April 1742 and was the culmination of two series of subscription concerts undertaken by the composer, beginning on 23 December 1741. Unlike its subsequent reception in London over the next eight years, the work was enthusiastically received at its Dublin premiere.
Jennens libretto for Messiah, an assemblage of mostly brief texts taken from the Authorised Version of the Bible, is divided into three parts: the first part is concerned with prophecies about the Saviour and their fulfilment in his incarnation; the second part – nearly half of which is heard this evening – traces the flow of events from Christ’s passion to the Second Coming, while the final part is a lengthy commentary on Christ’s role as Saviour. In the printed word-book for the first London performances of 1743, these parts are further divided into between four and seven numbered sections similar to operatic scenes. Handel almost certainly received Jennens’ libretto complete with headings for recitatives, arias and choruses, and while a recitative-aria-chorus sequence is initially adhered to in Part One, this scheme becomes more fluid as the ‘action’ proceeds. By the first ‘scene’ of Part Two, the chorus assumes a leading role, the section being redolent of the German Passion tradition with its crowd choruses. Interestingly, the chorus ‘All we, like Sheep’, along with four of the oratorio’s other movements (‘His yoke is easy’, ‘And he shall purify’, ‘For unto us a child is born’, and ‘O death, where is thy sting?’) are derived from the composer’s own secular Italian duets for two voices and continuo, which date from c1722 and 1741.
For over two centuries, Messiah has captured the minds and hearts of audiences. As early as 1785, the English composer and music historian Charles Burney (1726-1814), who claimed to have seen Handel in Chester during the composer’s stay there en route to Dublin, wrote that ‘this great work has been heard in all parts of the Kingdom with increasing reverence and delight.’ In our own time too, others have sought to account for the oratorio’s continued popularity. In the final analysis, to quote Handel scholar Donald Burrows, ‘Messiah, like the celebration of Christmas, is sufficiently rich and complex to speak to a range of human needs and emotions, irrespective of its immediate Judaeo-Christian framework.’