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The 200th Anniversary of the First Performance of Handel’s Messiah

The first public performance of Handel’s Messiah took place in Neal’s Musick Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin, in the shadows of Christ Church Cathedral on 13th April 1742. 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.

George Frideric Handel, was born in Halle, in Germany, in 1685 but would eventually become a naturalised British subject in 1727. Handel always had close ties with the religious authorities where he resided, both in a personal and professional capacity. It is no surprise that upon his move to Great Britain, he developed strong ties with the Established Church and worked extensively with religious bodies to showcase his new works. In 1741, the decision was made to give a season of concerts in Dublin towards the end of this year, and in to early 1742. 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. Handel wrote the music for Messiah during a frenzied period of inspiration the previous year, in late August and early September, continuing to revise the work prior to its performance in Dublin in 1742. It is said that Handel, writing to the librettist of Messiah, Charles Jennens, during Christmas 1741, noted ‘the politeness of this generous nation cannot be unknown to you’. 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.

An image from the document in question, showing the signatures of the members of the cathedrals’ choirs who performed in the 200th anniversary celebration of Handel’s Messiah. © RCB Library C2/9/1

By early March 1742, contact was made with St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals to explore the use of their choirs for the forthcoming concert. Permission was granted to utilise 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. Despite the high reputation that Handel had throughout Europe at this time, there was some reticence on the part of the cathedral authorities to have their members associated with a performance in a secular venue.

It might be said that such concerns dimmed over the following 200 years, and on the occasion of such a momentous anniversary, the cathedrals decided to celebrate the event, by performing two concerts to be held on 13th April in St Patrick’s Cathedral and the following day in Christ Church Cathedral.

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.