THIS DAY IN HISTORY: Handel's oratorio Messiah was first performed

On this day, 13th April in 1742, the oratorio Messiah by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), culminating in the famous Hallelujah Chorus, was first performed.

It was commissioned by William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire then serving as the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to raise money for hospitals and debtors’ prisons. The performance took place in Dublin.

The Dublin Journal had this to say: “Mr Handel’s Sacred Grand Oratorio, the Messiah, was performed at the New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded audience.

“The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adopted to the most elevated, majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.”

Though there is no detailed record of the performance, which raised £400 for the good causes, reports suggest that it was given by a chorus of 16 men and 16 boys, two women choristers, a small string orchestra, a chamber organ, and a harpsichord played by Handel himself.

This was a modest ensemble compared to later performances when the work became world-famous, perhaps none exceeded by the London presentation in 1879 on the centenary of Handel’s death. It was performed by a choir of 2,765 accompanied by a 460-piece orchestra.

Traditionally, everyone stands when the Hallelujah Chorus begins. The common explanation for this practice is that King George II (1683-1760) attended a performance and rose to his feet when the Chorus was performed, obediently followed by all those present.

What caused the King to rise is uncertain. Some say he did it because he was so moved by the magnificent music. Others say that he had dozed off, but was startled out of his slumber by the loud choristers.

The third – but unlikely – theory is that when he heard the words “And He shall reign for ever and ever” the King thought the ensemble were paying respect to himself and he stood to acknowledge the tribute!

Because of cataracts, Handel was blind by 1752 and died in 1759 at the age of 74. More than 3,000 mourners attended his funeral and burial at Westminster Abbey. Appropriately, the last performance he attended was of Messiah.

A final word from Ludwig van Beethoven who said of Handel: “He is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.”

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