This is a tale of two cities, Dublin and Halle an der Saale in the former East Germany. What connects them is Dublin's Fishamble Street where the first performance of Handel's oratorio, Messiah, took place 275 years ago this week, on April 13th.
Handel was born in Halle but spent much of his career in London where he was quite the celebrity. By 1741, however, his success as an opera composer was dwindling under political and artistic opposition and Handel crossed the Irish Sea to get away from it all. London's loss was Dublin's gain. The first performance of Messiah was a sell-out and Handel's connection with Dublin was born.
Today, Fishamble Street is a commuter rat-run sitting in the giant shadow of the Civic Offices. All that remains of Neal’s Musick Hall where the work was premiered is a fragment of red brick wall. But in its heyday the hall was part of a thriving commercial and residential quarter bustling with craftsmen, merchants and well-to-do families.
Adjacent to the site of the hall, which was originally built for the Bull’s Head Musical Society, is a restored town house dating from around the 1820s. Once an engineering works and now home to the Contemporary Music Centre, the building offers an insight into the style of the housing stock in the area in the 19th century.
But the street was inhabited centuries before that and a beautiful replica of the architecture and ecology typical of a Fishamble Street dwelling from circa1014 is on permanent display at the National Botanic Gardens in
. Its design was informed by evidence uncovered during the excavation of Wood Quay in the 1970s and the house was created in 2014 to commemorate the Battle of
What’s particularly striking about the house is the precision of its construction from all natural materials. In 1014 this was likely to have been ash, hazel and oak for harder structures and heather and yellow flag for bedding. The dwelling’s crowing glory is its dramatic and tightly woven patchwork thatch that looks like an inverted longboat from the distance.
There is little left on Fishamble Street to remind one of its ancient history, but on Thursday, April 13th, the history of the 18th century variety will be celebrated with an hour-long concert of Messiah highlights. The on-street performance by Our Lady's Choral Society takes place at 1pm and is a free public event.
The first performance of Messiah was given for charity and as a big audience was anticipated, space-saving measures were introduced. These included asking ladies not to wear hoops in their skirts and requesting gentlemen to leave their swords at home. For a subsequent performance panes of glass were removed from the windows to keep the venue cool.
Messiah was performed with men and boys drawn from the combined choirs of St Patrick's and Christ Church cathedrals. However the performance nearly didn't happen. Handel's music was still considered by many ecclesiastics as profane, and the curmudgeonly Dean Swift of St Patrick's Cathedral threatened to forbid his choirsters from taking part. In the end he relented and it went ahead. Neal's Musick Hall had just opened and was one of the first purpose-built concert halls in Europe at the time.
Handel’s stay here was a huge success and he praised the sensibilities of Dublin audiences and performers highly. He told his friend,
(who wrote the libretto for
), that “the subscription list of six hundred persons was quite filled.” He also added that when looking for voices for the performance he found the Irish singers good, especially “the basses and counter-tenors.” He also praised the acoustic properties of Mr Neal’s “charming room”.
For years little happened at an official level to commemorate Messiah's first performance apart from Mr Casey, the last resident of Fishamble Street, opening his windows wide on April 13th each year and playing a recording of the work at full volume to mark the occasion. Then Fr Paul Kenny, who sings with Our Lady's Choral Society, decided he was going to commemorate the 250th anniversary by singing excerpts from Messiah on the street on his own if necessary. In the event he was joined by the rest of choir and its conductor, Proinnsías Ó Duinn, for what has become an annual event now in its 26th year.
While most music lovers are aware of Handel's links with Dublin, the fact that there is also a connection between Dublin and Handel's birthplace in Halle is less well known. But each year Proinnsías Ó Duinn travels there to conduct a performance of Messiah with a choir of 450 Handel enthusiasts from all over the world. This year the Irish contingent presented the Handel-Haus (where Handel was born and now a museum) with floor plans of Neal's Musick Hall and a fine watercolour re-creation of Fishamble Street by the Irish artist, Pauline Scott (above), to mark the anniversary of the Messiah's first performance.