Today, April 13, marks the anniversary of the debut of one of the best-known works in classical music, Handel’s Messiah! It was composed in London during the summer of 1741 in just 24 (!!!) days and was premiered in Dublin April 13, 1742. It was afterward revised numerous times by Handel (often to the specifics required by the performing orchestras) and reached its now most-familiar form at a performance to benefit the Foundling Hospital in 1754. It’s still often performed at Christmas and Easter, with the world record for an unbroken sequence of performances held by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, which has performed it annually since 1853!
Messiah is divided into 3 parts which interpret the life of Christ, the birth, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, concluding with Christ’s final victory over death and sin. It was premiered as part of a series of charity concerts in Neal’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street near Dublin’s Temple Bar. Right up to the very date of the premiere the performance was plagued by technical difficulties, and the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift (under whose aegis the premiere was to be held) cancelled it for a time. He demanded that the revenue from the concert be promised to local asylums for the mentally ill. The performance was finally held on April 13, and was completely sold out–the managers had to ask ladies not to wear their largest hoops for fear there would be no room for everyone in the hall! Handel led the performance from the harpsichord while his frequent collaborator Matthew Dubourg conducted the orchestra from the podium.
The soprano aria I know that my Redeemer liveth is often heard today at funerals, and over Handel’s grave in Westminster Abbey his statue holds a score of this very aria. The most popular section heard today is the Hallelujah chorus, which concludes the second of the three parts. In some performances it’s standard for the audience to rise for this piece, which is said to come from its first London performance on March 23, 1743. King George II rose, and so of course the rest of the audience had to follow! Another tale (which may or may not be true) says an assistant found Handel in tears as he was working on the composition and asked him what was wrong. Handel held up the score to this chorus and said “I thought I saw the face of God!”
What are some of your favorite pieces of music from this period (Handel or otherwise!)? Have you heard any memorable performances of Messiah? And do you think it is really possible to write such a thing in 24 days??? (I wish I could write a book in 24 days!)