The music for Messiah was completed in 24 days of swift composition. Having received Jennens’s text some time after 10 July 1741, Handel began work on it on 22 August. His records show that he had completed Part I in outline by 28 August, Part II by 6 September and Part III by 12 September, followed by two days of “filling up” to produce the finished work on 14 September. This rapid pace was seen by Jennens not as a sign of ecstatic energy but rather as “careless negligence”, and the relations between the two men would remain strained, since Jennens “urged Handel to make improvements” while the composer stubbornly refused. The autograph score’s 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratchings-out, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors, but according to the music scholar Richard Luckett the number of errors is remarkably small in a document of this length. The original manuscript for Messiah is now held in the British Library’s music collection. It is scored for two trumpets, timpani, two oboes, two violins, viola, and basso continuo.
At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote the letters “SDG”—Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory”. This inscription, taken with the speed of composition, has encouraged belief in the apocryphal story that Handel wrote the music in a fervour of divine inspiration in which, as he wrote the Hallelujah chorus, “He saw all heaven before him”. Burrows points out that many of Handel’s operas of comparable length and structure to Messiah were composed within similar timescales between theatrical seasons. The effort of writing so much music in so short a time was not unusual for Handel and his contemporaries; Handel commenced his next oratorio, Samson, within a week of finishing Messiah, and completed his draft of this new work in a month. In accordance with his practice when writing new works, Handel adapted existing compositions for use in Messiah, in this case drawing on two recently completed Italian duets and one written twenty years previously. Thus, Se tu non lasci amore HWV 193 from 1722 became the basis of “O Death, where is thy sting?”; “His yoke is easy” and “And he shall purify” were drawn from Quel fior che all’alba ride HWV 192 (July 1741), “Unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep” from Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi HWV 189 (July 1741). Handel’s instrumentation in the score is often imprecise, again in line with contemporary convention, where the use of certain instruments and combinations was assumed and did not need to be written down by the composer; later copyists would fill in the details.
Before the first performance Handel made numerous revisions to his manuscript score, in part to match the forces available for the 1742 Dublin premiere; it is probable that his work was not performed as originally conceived in his lifetime. Between 1742 and 1754 he continued to revise and recompose individual movements, sometimes to suit the requirements of particular singers. The first published score of Messiah was issued in 1767, eight years after Handel’s death, though this was based on relatively early manuscripts and included none of Handel’s later revisions.
The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, where Messiah was first performed
Handel’s decision to give a season of concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741–42 arose from an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, then serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. A violinist friend of Handel’s, Matthew Dubourg, was in Dublin as the Lord Lieutenant’s bandmaster; he would look after the tour’s orchestral requirements. Whether Handel originally intended to perform Messiah in Dublin is uncertain; he did not inform Jennens of any such plan, for the latter wrote to Holdsworth on 2 December 1741: “… it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing Messiah here he has gone into Ireland with it.” After arriving in Dublin on 18 November 1741, Handel arranged a subscription series of six concerts, to be held between December 1741 and February 1742 at the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street. These concerts were so popular that a second series was quickly arranged; Messiah figured in neither series.
In early March Handel began discussions with the appropriate committees for a charity concert, to be given in April, at which he intended to present Messiah. He sought and was given permission from St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals to use their choirs for this occasion. These forces amounted to sixteen men and sixteen boy choristers; several of the men were allocated solo parts. The women soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio, who had sung the main soprano roles in the two subscription series, and Susannah Cibber, an established stage actress and contralto who had sung in the second series. To accommodate Cibber’s vocal range, the recitative “Then shall the eyes of the blind” and the aria “He shall feed his flock” were transposed down to F major. The performance, also in the Fishamble Street hall, was originally announced for 12 April, but was deferred for a day “at the request of persons of Distinction”. The orchestra in Dublin comprised strings, two trumpets, and timpani; the number of players is unknown. Handel had his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performances; a harpsichord was probably also used.
The three charities that were to benefit were prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercer’s Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. In its report on a public rehearsal, the Dublin News-Letter described the oratorio as “… far surpass[ing] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom”. Seven hundred people attended the premiere on 13 April. So that the largest possible audience could be admitted to the concert, gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The performance earned unanimous praise from the assembled press: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crouded Audience”. A Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, was so overcome by Susanna Cibber’s rendering of “He was despised” that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!” The takings amounted to around £400, providing about £127 to each of the three nominated charities and securing the release of 142 indebted prisoners.
Handel remained in Dublin for four months after the premiere. He organised a second performance of Messiah on 3 June, which was announced as “the last Performance of Mr Handel’s during his Stay in this Kingdom”. In this second Messiah, which was for Handel’s private financial benefit, Cibber reprised her role from the first performance, though Avoglio may have been replaced by a Mrs Maclaine; details of other performers are not recorded.
The warm reception accorded to Messiah in Dublin was not repeated in London. Indeed, even the announcement of the performance as a “new Sacred Oratorio” drew an anonymous commentator to ask if “the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it”. Handel introduced the work at the Covent Garden theatre on 23 March 1743. Avoglio and Cibber were again the chief soloists; they were joined by the tenor John Beard, a veteran of Handel’s operas, the bass Thomas Rheinhold and two other sopranos, Kitty Clive and Miss Edwards. The first performance was overshadowed by views expressed in the press that the work’s subject matter was too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singer-actresses such as Cibber and Clive. In an attempt to deflect such sensibilities, in London Handel had avoided the name Messiah and presented the work as the “New Sacred Oratorio”. As was his custom, Handel rearranged the music to suit his singers. He wrote a new setting of “And lo, the angel of the Lord” for Clive, never used subsequently. He added a tenor song for Beard: “Their sound is gone out”, which had appeared in Jennens’s original libretto but had not been in the Dublin performances.
The chapel of London’s Foundling Hospital, the venue for regular charity performances of Messiah from 1750
The custom of standing for the Hallelujah chorus originates from a popular belief that, at the London premiere, King George II did so, which would have obliged all to stand. There is no convincing evidence that the king was present, or that he attended any subsequent performance of Messiah; the first reference to the practice of standing appears in a letter dated 1756, three years prior to Handel’s death.
London’s initially cool reception of Messiah led Handel to reduce the season’s planned six performances to three, and not to present the work at all in 1744—to the considerable annoyance of Jennens, whose relations with the composer temporarily soured. At Jennens’s request, Handel made several changes in the music for the 1745 revival: “Their sound is gone out” became a choral piece, the soprano song “Rejoice greatly” was recomposed in shortened form, and the transpositions for Cibber’s voice were restored to their original soprano range. Jennens wrote to Holdsworth on 30 August 1745: “[Handel] has made a fine Entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might & ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grosser faults in the composition …” Handel directed two performances at Covent Garden in 1745, on 9 and 11 April, and then set the work aside for four years.
Uncompleted admission ticket for the May 1750 performance, including the arms of the venue, the Foundling Hospital
The 1749 revival at Covent Garden, under the proper title of Messiah, saw the appearance of two female soloists who were henceforth closely associated with Handel’s music: Giulia Frasi and Caterina Galli. In the following year these were joined by the male alto Gaetano Guadagni, for whom Handel composed new versions of “But who may abide” and “Thou art gone up on high”. The year 1750 also saw the institution of the annual charity performances of Messiah at London’s Foundling Hospital, which continued until Handel’s death and beyond. The 1754 performance at the hospital is the first for which full details of the orchestral and vocal forces survive. The orchestra included fifteen violins, five violas, three cellos, two double basses, four bassoons, four oboes, two trumpets, two horns and drums. In the chorus of nineteen were six trebles from the Chapel Royal; the remainder, all men, were altos, tenors and basses. Frasi, Galli and Beard led the five soloists, who were required to assist the chorus. For this performance the transposed Guadagni arias were restored to the soprano voice. By 1754 Handel was severely afflicted by the onset of blindness, and in 1755 he turned over the direction of the Messiah hospital performance to his pupil, J. C. Smith. He apparently resumed his duties in 1757 and may have continued thereafter. The final performance of the work at which Handel was present was at Covent Garden on 6 April 1759, eight days before his death.