The German composer sat back on the sofa of Mrs. Vernon’s drawing room in Clontarf Castle and exhaled noisily. His ears were still ringing with the exultant voices of the boy’s choir he had conducted earlier in the day. His hostess smiled across the room. ‘It is a good day for Hanover’, she said with her soft German voice. The composer returned her smile and nodded. He looked out the window across Dublin Bay at the turbulent waters of the Irish Sea over which he had sailed six months earlier.
Handel first arrived in Dublin on 18 November 1741 and remained until 13 August 1742. His ten-month sojourn was a hugely successful period in his life. At its heart was the world premiere of his ground-breaking oratorio, The Messiah, which took place at Neale’s Great Music Hall on Dublin’s Fishamble Street on 13 April 1742.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was born in the town of Halle on the banks of the River Saale in east Germany, where he spent the first 17 years of his life. His father, Georg Händel, was surgeon to the Royal Court of Brandenburg where they lived. Georg, 63 at the time of his son’s birth in 1685, was no fan of music. When he discovered that his boy had a propensity for such a pithy pastime, he issued strict instructions forbidding him to meddle with musical instruments. Nonetheless, the determined youngster managed to hide a small stringed keyboard in a room at the top of the house upon which he tinkled when the rest of his family were asleep. Legend holds that the older Handel was finally won over when one of his Ducal masters heard the boy playing on a church organ and loudly applauded.
In 1698, a year after his father’s death, 13-year-old Handel was invited to play the organ before Frederick I, King of Prussia. His nerves held out and, five years later, he was to be found playing the violin and harp in the Hamburg Opera House. He produced his first two operas in 1705, aged 20, and then spent four years touring Italy at his own expense, performing and composing for Cardinals and the Medici family.
In 1710, he advanced to Hanover where he was appointed kapellmeister, as in the man who would henceforth oversee musical entertainment for the Elector, later George I of England. The Elector’s mother wrote excitedly to her cousin about the arrival of this ‘good-looking man … the talk is that he was the lover of Victoria’. By Victoria, she meant the Italian soprano Vittoria Tarquini, with whom Handel, a lifelong bachelor, had a short romance. As George III of England later put it, Handel’s ‘amours were rather of short duration, always with[in] the pale of his own profession’.
In 1712, the composer moved to Queen Anne’s court in London where he secured the patronage of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, the wealthiest man in the kingdom whose great-grandfather had accumulated the family fortune buying land in Munster a century earlier. A string of major works followed, including Water Music, the Chandos Anthems and Zadok the Priest, as Handel became the toast of London’s music scene.
Handel was compulsive, witty and profoundly charming. He was also, of course, a perfectionist and his temper was wont to rise when people doubted his musical genius. ‘He was irascible’, said one contemporary, ‘and impatient of contradiction, but not vindictive’. As such, when he received a series of poor reviews from the London critics in 1741, his mood soured.
Cue the Duke of Devonshire’s invite to Ireland.
The Duke, a cousin of Lord Burlington, had been Viceroy of Ireland since 1737. He was one of a new breed of wealthy liberal peers who emerged in Britain during the mid-18th century, determined to use their influence to better the miserable conditions of the common people. [i] As such he had become a patron of Mercer’s Charitable Hospital on Stephen Street, Dublin, which had been established some years earlier by a group of concerned citizens, including Jonathan Swift.
The first direct link between G.F. Handel and Ireland dates to 1736 when, advertising the first of a series of charity benefit concerts, the Governors of Mercer’s Hospital invited Dublin’s well-to-do to attend ‘a Solemn Grand Performance of Church Musick’ by an orchestra of ‘ forty gentlemen, skilled in Musick on various instruments’. On offer was ‘the celebrated Te Deum and Jubilate of the famous Mr. Handel, with his Coronation Anthem, never heard here before.’
This was the first opportunity Dublin audiences had to hear Handel’s sacred repertoire. It also pre-empted the most famous of the Mercer’s Hospital concerts, namely the premiere of his Messiah in 1742.
Handel wrote the Messiah in just three weeks and arrived in Ireland with the notes safely packed in his trunk. For most of his 40 weeks in Ireland, he stayed at Clontarf Castle with the Vernon family. Mrs. Vernon was an old friend from Hanover days where she had been Fraulein Dorothy Grahn. She had arrived in England with her brother, Herr Hans Otto Grahn, as part of George I’s entourage in 1714.
Handel dedicated his 1742 work, Forest Music, to Mrs Vernon. It is not hard to decipher the Irish influence upon this piece. In conversation with Charles O’Conor, the influential Roscommon antiquarian, Handel confessed that he would rather have composed the folk song ‘Eileen Aroon’ than any of his own compositions. He also played around with Irish folk music and wrote an air called “Der arme Irische Junge” (The Poor Irish Boy).
The idea that the Messiah would benefit the poor of Dublin certainly appealed to Handel. While in London, he had established himself as a man of notable generosity. He was one of the founders of the Fund for the Support of Decay’d Musicians and Their Families. He was also a major benefactor and governor of the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children, which had been co-founded by the afore-mentioned Duke of Devonshire.
The performance of the Messiah was sponsored by the Charitable Musical Society to raise funds for a new building, the Hospital for Incurables, as well as Mercer’s, the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, and several prisons.
Over 700 people crowded into the Great Musick Hall to hear Handel lead the performance of his choral masterpiece with a harpsichord. In view of the numbers, ladies were requested to come “without hoops,” and gentlemen without swords. The critics were unanimous that this was “the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard.” He performed it again in June with boys and men from both the Dublin cathedral choirs. Amongst those who witnessed the performance was barber-surgeon Bartholomew Mosse who would go on to orchestrate a series of benefit concerts, with Handel’s music, to built the Rotunda.
It was his intention to return to Dublin, the city which accorded him such a fine welcome, but he never did.
Handel died in his sleep in 1759 at the age of 74. Over 3000 people attended his funeral. He was given full state honours by Britain and buried in Westminster Cathedral.
The arched white entrance to the Great Musick Hall still survives on Fishamble Street. Today, devotees from across the world will gather here to celebrate the visit of a European composer who perhaps did as much as anyone to put Dublin on the map as a city of culture.
[i] In 1739, the 41-year-old Duke of Devonshire co- founded a new children’s charity in London called the ‘Foundling Hospital’, which sought to look after babies abandoned by destitute mothers. Handel would later become the institutions’ Governor. Under his direction, a choir of blind children frequently performed the Messiah there. In 1847, nearly a hundred years after Handel’s Messiah was performed there, the first successful juvenile band in 75 years was started at the school. The educational effects of music were found excellent, and the hospital supplied many musicians to the best army and navy bands.
This story featured in the Irish Daily Mail on 13 April 2010, and was followed by an interview on 4FM with David Harvey about why Handel came to Dublin.