Handel and Arne in Ireland

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XXV

IN the late summer of the year 1741 the Duke of Devonshire, Viceroy of Ireland, invited Handel to Dublin, and this invitation was the more readily responded to, inasmuch as Handel's friend, Matthew Dubourg, was Conductor of the State Band. Moreover, the Governors of Mercer's Hospital, and of the Charitable Infirmary, had asked Handel to compose something special in aid of the Dublin sick. This special work, the immortal Messiah, was finished by Handel on September 14th, 1741, having been written in three weeks—a marvellous tour de force.

On November 18th, 1741, Handel arrived in Dublin, accompanied by Mrs. Cibber, Maclean, his organist, and others; and on the 24th arrived Signora Avoglio. From the minute-book of Mercer's Hospital, under date of November 21st, 1741, Dean Owen, Sub-dean Wynne, and Mr. Putland were requested to wait on "Mr. Handel," and ask him "to play on the organ at the musical performances at St. Andrew's Church." Handel complied, and played at the Round Church on Thursday, December 10th. Two days later Mrs. Cibber made her first appearance in Dublin, at the Theatre Royal, Aungier-street, as Indiana in The Conscious Lovers.

The files of Faulkner's Journal supply interesting details of Handel's stay in Ireland. An advertisement announces that on and after December 14th "Mr. Handel will be in attendance at his house in Abbey-street, near Liffey-street, from 9 o'clock in the morning till 2 in the afternoon, to receive subscribers for his six musical entertainments at the "New Musick Hall in Fishamble-street." Handel's first concert was on December 23rd, consisting of L'Allegro, with two concertos for several instruments, and a concerto on the organ. An instantaneous success is recorded—the performance being described by a reporter as "superior to anything of the kind in this kingdom before." Handel's own verdict was equally satisfactory, and he tells his friend, Charles Jennens (who wrote the libretto of the Messiah), that the subscription list of six hundred persons was quite filled. He also added that he was looking up voices for the performance of the oratorio, and that the Irish singers were good, especially "the basses and counter-tenors," praising, too, the acoustic properties of Mr. Neale's "charming room," and the high appreciative faculties of the nobility, clergy, and "persons of distinction of this generous nation." By command of the Viceroy this concert was repeated on January 13th, 1742. The third musical entertainment, on January 20th, consisted of Acis and Galatea, Dryden's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, "with several concertos on the organ and other instruments;" and a repeat performance was given on January 27th.

Dean Swift at this date, through his sub-dean, permitted six of his Vicars' Choral and two of his choristers to assist at the weekly performances of the Charitable Musical Society, "upon account of their being chiefly intended for the benefit of Mercer's Hospital."

On Wednesday, February 3rd, Handel gave his fifth concert, when the oratorio of Esther was produced; and, on February 10th, it was repeated with success. A new series of performances was given, commencing on February 17th, the attraction being "Alexander's Feast, with additions." A repetition performance was announced for February 24th, but it was postponed to March 2nd. The four remaining concerts took place on March 10th, 17th, 24th, and 31st, but the only novelty was "the new Serenata of Hymen." Finally, an extra concert was given on April 7th, namely, "Esther, with several Concertos."

At last, on Thursday, April 8th, 1742, a public rehearsal of The Messiah took place, and the critics agreed that it was "the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard." So unanimous was the approval of Handel's masterpiece that, on the announcement of the first public performance, the Stewards of the Charitable Musical Society, in view of a crowded attendance, requested the ladies to come "without hoops," and the gentlemen without their swords. The actual first performance of Handel's sublime oratorio took place on Tuesday, April 13th, at 12 noon. Neale's Music Hall was densely packed with a most enthusiastic and discriminating audience, and The Messiah "made its impression once and for ever." Handel himself forwarded to Mr. Jennens the critical observations of "the Bishop of Elphin—a Nobleman very learned in Musick" on the performance, and also a copy of the printed word-book, issued by George Faulkner, of Dublin, "price, a British six-pence."[1]

Handel gave a repetition performance of The Messiah "with concertos on the organ," on June 3rd, when a crowded audience again assembled. In the advertisement is added:—"In order to keep the Room as cool as possible, a Pane of Glass will be removed from the Top of each of the Windows. N.B.—This will be the last Performance of Mr. Handel's during his Stay in this Kingdom."

At this repeat performance the chorus was composed of the boys and men of both the Dublin cathedrals who had sung at the inaugural "entertainment." From the Dublin word-book, discovered by Dr. Culwick, we are in a position to name the soloists, though the artists were not the same as at the initial performance. Signora Avoglio, Mrs. Cibber, and Mrs. MacLean (Maclaine), took the female parts, whilst Messrs. Bailey, Mason, Lamb, Hill, and Ward, of the Dublin cathedral, were the male soloists. One of the boys who sang was Samuel Murphy, afterwards Mus. Doc. and Organist of both cathedrals.[2]

Meantime there is chronicled a benefit concert at Fishamble-street Music Hall on April 5th, 1742, for Signora Avoglio. Another benefit took place at Smock-alley Theatre on May 17th for Messrs. William and Bartholomew Mainwaring. So great was its success that it was repeated on the 19th. One of the attractions was the playing of his Medley Overture by Bartholomew Mainwaring. The brothers Mainwaring, at this date, kept a music shop "at Corelli's Head, in College Green," and published much music.

On Wednesday, May 12th, Mr. Charles, French Horn Master, gave a grand concert in Fishamble-street, when the clarinet, horn, and shawm were heard for the first time in Ireland. However, the principal attraction was the "Overture and Dead March in Saul, never performed here before."

Handel produced his oratorio of Saul at Fishamble-street Music Hall on May 25th, which was well received, especially the famous Dead March. After the repeat performance of The Messiah, on June 3rd, the great composer visited Cork, where he had some friends. Whilst in Dublin he spent most of his evenings at Mrs. Vernon's, of Clontarf Castle. This lady was a Hanoverian, Dorothy Grahn, who came over to England in company with her brother, Herr Hans Otto Grahn, with King George I.

For this lady he wrote Forest Music, which has traces of Irish environment. Charles O'Conor, of Belanagare, has left it on record that Handel said he would rather have been the author of "Eibhlin a ruin" than of all his own compositions, but, be that as it may, it is certain that the composer of The Messiah was charmed with the Irish folk-songs, one of which, "Der arme Irische Junge" (The Poor Irish Boy) may be seen in Handel's Manuscripts and Sketches in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Most probably he heard the air in Dublin.[3]


[1] Although the word-book was issued in June, 1742, for the repeat performance, the vocal score of The Messiah was not published for twenty-five years later. The actual date of publication was July 7th, 1767, the plates being printed by Messrs. Randall and Abell, successors to John Walsh, Catherine-street, Strand, London. A copy of the original Dublin word-book was discovered by Dr. Culwick, and a former owner pencilled the names of the singers, This book is now in the British Museum.

[2] Samuel Murphy was organist of St. Bride's, Dublin, in 1750, and, in 1752, he published "Twelve English Ballad Songs set to Music."

[3] He introduced an Irish jig into Acis and Galatea.