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13 Apr

A connection to Swift: Handel’s Messiah

Handels Messiah was first performed in Dublin on 13th April, 1742. The video above shows the Messiah being performed as close to the original spot as possible in 2012, 270 years later (and the 21st time the recreation had been done). All that remains of the original location is the white arch on the right that can be seen in the background. (It’s next door to the George Frederic Handel Hotel, if you are looking for the spot.)

Handel decided to premiere Messiah in Dublin after being invited to perform during the 1741-42 winter season there. It was a charity concert in aid of a number of charities including prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercer’s Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary. Positive reports from rehearsals lead to hundreds seeking to attend the concert, in a venue only normally seating six hundred. To accommodate the crowds, ladies were asked to leave their hoops at home, and gentlemen not to wear swords.

The Music Hall, where the Messiah was first performed

The central white building is the music hall where the Messiah was first performed

But the concert had almost never happened. Handel had requested Christ Church and St Patrick’s Cathedral’s choirs to perform the piece. (The women’s roles were sung by established stage singers.) This was not an innovation; charity concerts at which the church choirs performed were a regular occurance. But Jonathan Swift as Dean objected to the choir of St Patrick’s Cathedral performing in a musical hall. In January, three months before the performance, he sent out a note entreating the subDean and chapter to punish any who should perform in “a club of Fidlers in Fishamble Street”. “My Resolution”, he concluded, “is to preserve the Dignity of my Station, and the Honour of my Chapter”.

Luckily (and for unknown reasons) Swift relented in time. The performance went ahead. Faulkners Dublin Journal tells us, “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick, and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”

Swift himself was in decline. A month later he was taken in charge by guardians to look after his affairs. He died on 19th October 1745, aged 78 years. He left most of his fortune to found a hospital for the mentally ill, originally known as St Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles, which opened in 1757. The hospital, now known as St Patrick’s University Hospital, still exists today.

(Source: Jonathan Swift and the Arts, by Joseph McMinn, 2010)

Further reading

Jonathan Swift and the Arts, by Joseph McMinn, 2010

Another link between Handel and Swift (and see this blog post for more on Arbuthnot):

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