It’s globally popular more than 250 years after it was first performed in Dublin, but what makes Handel’s Messiah a work of genius?
There are pieces of classical music that everyone knows. Snatches of Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi have floated free of their setting and are hummed by people who don’t think of themselves as classical music buffs.
One of the greatest of all is the Hallelujah Chorus, taken from Handel’s Messiah, which is performed regularly all over the world more than 250 years after it was written.
A free spirit
Handel himself was an interesting character: independent-minded, big-hearted and hot-tempered when it came to his music – he once threatened to throw an underperforming star soprano out of a window. His desire for independence pushed him from Germany to Italy and finally to London, where he sensed freedom. But puritanism was still a powerful faction and condemned as profanity any attempt to turn Biblical texts into theatrical performances.
True to his vision
Headstrong as ever, Handel ignored critics and composed Messiah. However, he balked at the controversy of a London performance and – having tactfully renamed it A Sacred Oratorio to duck accusations of blasphemy – he accepted an invitation to perform in Dublin where the less conservative audiences loved his work. Although Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral (and author of Gulliver’s Travels), had to be talked round.
Handel’s decision not to launch in London irritated his librettist, Charles Jennen, but the peppery composer was single-minded. Thus he travelled to Dublin and on 13 April 1742, performed his Sacred Oratorio to enormous acclaim at the Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Temple Bar in front of a 700-strong, tightly packed and appreciative audience.
Handel in the 21st Century
The composer’s glorious work on that April day is a cherished part of Dublin’s history. Every year, choirs and classical music admirers concur with Handel, and descend upon the city to enjoy Messiah, and what the composer also appreciated: the venues, the atmosphere and the ability to bring classical and choral music to an adoring and appreciative audience.
The Gathering for the Messiah
In the year of The Gathering, there’s a special celebration going on. The big day starts with a behind the scenes insight to the preparations, plus an opportunity to attend final rehearsals before attending a full performance of Messiah at St Andrew’s Church. A dedicated Handel walking tour is taking place on April 13, which will visit the places Handel frequented in the city.
The Music Hall on Fishamble Street that started it all off is sadly no more, but Dublin remains an outstanding place to experience contemporary performances of classical and choral music, not least because of the quality of the venues that the city has become famous for.
The National Concert Hall attracts top Irish and international acts and is rated by artists as one of the finest concert halls in Europe. Part of the city’s enormous appeal lies in the smaller, lesser-known spots, too – experience an intimate candlelit performance in the candlelit surrounds of Dublin’s Pepper Cannister Church and you’ll understand what we’re talking about.
An instant hit
After four months, Handel returned to London and an initially cool reception. But his genius won audiences and by the time of his death in 1759, Messiah was part of the canon.
Sitting in the audience, contrasting those moments of stillness with Handel’s “thunderbolts”, it’s impossible not to agree with Beethoven’s simple verdict: “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived.”
On that final word, wouldn’t it be even more special to enjoy it where it all began?