The Ladies who honour this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without hoops, as it will greatly increase the Charity by making room for more company. The Gentlemen are desired to come without their Swords.
— the Dublin Journal, 10 April 1742
With these words, the gentle folk of Dublin were invited to attend the first performance of what was to become one of the most beloved and enduring works of the classical music canon. When the celebrated German composer George Frederic Handel (his name already Anglicized) was invited to Ireland, it was at a time when his opera enterprises in London were failing. He then turned his hand to a new medium, the “Sacred Oratorio.” One such was Messiah, the first performance of which took place in the New Music-Hall in Fishamble Street in Dublin on April 13th, 1742. Today, the Orchestra and Choir present a recreation of this first performance of Messiah.
We can’t be clear about the audience capacity of the New Music- Hall, but we suspect that it was relatively small, with a correspondingly small-sized orchestra. Though it became customary to hear the work in a church, the first performance took place in a concert hall. Perhaps this is why at the premier, Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and also the author of Gulliver’s Travels, was reluctant to let the choristers under his charge take part, not wanting to “assist at a club of fiddlers.” In a sense he was right, for it is likely that Handel saw his sacred oratorios more in operatic and theatrical terms as opposed to a purely sacred experience. Of course, wherever it is performed the music is deeply moving.
Over the years it has become standard for performing groups to do a type of “averaged-out” version of Messiah. In reality each performance in Handel’s time had special characteristics. But what are the differences between the original and what has become standard?
- The Air for Alto or Soprano, 6. “But who may abide the day of His coming?” is originally for Bass.
- The Soprano Air 18. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion” is originally in 12/8 time, rather than in 4/4.
- The Air 20. “He shall feed his flock” is sung by the Alto rather than the standard Soprano version in a different key.
- The Air 36. “Thou art gone up on high,” usually for Soprano, is here sung by Bass.
- 38. “How beautiful are the feet” is originally a Duetto for 2 Alto solos and Chorus. The following chorus in published editions, No. 39, “Their sound is gone is out,” was not part of the original performance.
- The Air 52. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” is sung by the Alto rather than Soprano.
It has become customary for people to stand for the “Hallelujah” chorus. The tradition of standing supposedly comes from the fact that in the London performance, King George II was so moved that he stood up, and therefore the audience was obliged to stand also. But whether this story is true or not, the king was not in Dublin for the first performance, of which this concert is a recreation. So sit and enjoy!