A new book by acclaimed British conductor Jane Glover traces the ups and downs of George Frideric Handel’s career in London. The composer moved to England in 1712, shortly after St Paul’s Cathedral was finished, and spent the rest of his life there, producing some of his greatest works. Glover brings extensive musical understanding and passion to the subject, unpicking the compositions, the performances and life in eighteenth-century London, and revealing a creatively brilliant and incredibly hardworking man. We reproduce an extract below, which describes the exhilarating debut performance of Messiah.
Handel chose to present this monumental narration and reflection, the very foundation of all Christian faith, in Passion week, and, despite its surrounding clamour, for no personal gain. This new work would be performed for the benefit of the three local charitable societies, as the announcement in the Dublin Journal, on 27th March 1742, proclaimed: ‘For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary in the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand Oratorio, call’d the Messiah, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.’ Again, even while his second subscription series was in full flow (Hymen and Esther were still being rehearsed and performed), Handel set to work to fit his new score to his current performers. Making the necessary adjustments – transpositions, additions, subtractions – to accommodate individual abilities, he allotted solos to a number of the Gentlemen from the choirs: the altos, William Lambe and Joseph Ward, the tenor, James Baileys, and the basses, John Mason and John Hill. And he certainly included Signora Avoglio, the elusive Mrs Maclaine, and Mrs Cibber, making modifications for them too. Late in the preparation stages, on 9th April, there was a rehearsal to which the public (‘the most crowded and polite Assembly’) were admitted, after which the buzz about this new work was thrilling. On the following morning, the Dublin Newsletter declared that, ‘Mr Handel’s new sacred Oratorio . . . in the opinion of the best Judges, far surpasses anything of that Nature, which has been performed in this or in any other Kingdom.’ Great crowds were anticipated as usual for the first performance on 13th April, to the extent that the ladies were now urged to ‘come without Hoops, as it will greatly increase the Charity, by making the Room for more Company’. Similarly, ‘the Gentlemen are desired to come without their Swords’.
And so Messiah received its first performance. If the rehearsal had generated excitement, it was nothing compared to the breathless eulogies which followed this premiere. The Dublin Journal, Dublin News-letter and Dublin Gazette all carried, in more or less identical form, the following report:
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. It is but Justice to Mr. Handel, that the World should know, he generously gave the Money arising from this Grand Performance, to be equally shared by the Society for relieving Prisoners, the Charitable Infirmary, and Mercer’s Hospital, for which they will ever gratefully remember his Name; and that the Gentlemen of the two Choirs, Mr. Dubourg, Mrs. Avolio, and Mrs. Cibber, who all performed their Parts to Admiration, acted also on the same disinterested Principle, satisfied with the deserving Applause of the Publick, and the conscious Pleasure of promoting such useful, and extensive Charity.
According to legend, Susanna Cibber received an especial tribute. After she had sung ‘He was despised’, the longest aria in the whole work, combining sorrow, desolation, guilt and even rage, the Reverend Dr Delany, Chancellor of St Patrick’s (and soon to be the husband of Handel’s friend, Mary Pendarves), leapt to his feet, crying, ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!’ If Susanna’s reputation as a fallen woman had followed her from London to Dublin, she had certainly received the most public absolution, and in the most august of circumstances. It is to be hoped that this brought her comfort rather than embarrassment.
Extract from Handel in London: The Making of a Genius by Jane Glover (Macmillan, £25). Would you like to be the first to read our Book of the Week extracts? Click here to sign up to our newsletter.