Wednesday 1 April 2020

Handel's Messiah, Dublin, & the Gentlemen of the Choir

The RCB Library's Archive of the Month for April looks at the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Handel's Messiah which was given on 13 April 1742 in Neal’s Musick Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin, in the shadows of Christ Church Cathedral.

Given the strong religious nature of the oratorio, it is perhaps no surprise that its first performance drew so heavily from the two cathedrals in Dublin in particular, as well as the Established Church in general. This relationship between the Church and Handel’s masterpiece was marked by a special celebration on the 200th anniversary of its first performance, on 13th April 1942.

The signatures of the members of the cathedrals' choirs
who performed in the 200th anniversary celebration of
Handel's Messiah. From RCB Library C2/9/1
George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, in Germany, in 1685 but became a naturalised British subject in 1727. In 1741, the decision was made to give a season of concerts in Dublin. These were performed in the Musick Hall, Fishamble Street, but did not feature Messiah, nor any version of the oratio.

These concerts proved phenomenally popular and Handel continued to work in Dublin during the spring of 1742.

While Handel’s Messiah originated from his time in London, it matured and was appreciated in Dublin. He wrote the music for Messiah during 1741 and continued to revise the work prior to its performance in Dublin in 1742. Handel himself was residing in a house on the corner of Abbey Street and Liffey Street, and used this premises as a residence and ticket-office.

By early March 1742, contact had been made with St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals to explore the use of their choirs for the forthcoming concert.

Permission was granted to use the services of 16 men and 16 boy choristers from both cathedrals, with some of these men performing solo parts. It is a testament to the high standards associated with both choirs that so many were chosen to be part of such an eminent production.

The RCB Library holds extensive collections with regards to both cathedrals, and there are detailed important accounts relating to the choirs. One such example is RCB Library C2/9/1, which is a booklet produced in the 20th century showing the original octavo edition of Handel’s Messiah in vocal score, edited by W. T. Best (London: Novello and Company).

What makes this such a unique item is that the notice for the cathedral concerts in April 1942 is included, along with a full list of those who performed originally, as well as those performing in the 200th anniversary celebration. Also saved is a page, on Church of Ireland Printing Co Ltd paper showing the signatures of those ‘gentlemen of the choir’ who performed in 1942.