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The Irish Messiah

Performances of George Friedrich Handel's Messiah are a mainstay at Christmas time in churches and concert halls around the country. It is one of the most famous pieces of Classical choral music - perhaps the most famous piece of sacred music written in English - and is performed either in full or in a reduced version, and with or without audience participation. It is almost without fail that you will come across Handel's music in the run up to and during Christmas. You might encounter a choir singing the famous "Hallelujah" chorus, or turn on the television and catch a snippet between programmes. In short, Messiah is synonymous with Christmas. Hence it may come as a surprise to the casual observer that the work was not originally intended to become part of Christmas festivities. Instead it received its world premiere in the Musick Hall in Dublin, a very secular setting, in the year 1742.

The brainchild behind Messiah was a scholar named Charles Jennens, who compiled material from sources such as the King James Bible, as well as the Book of Common Prayer. In coming up with the text that would eventually form the words to the music, Jennens edited vast sections of text on historical areas such as the prophecy of the Messiah's coming, the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, before presenting his compiled work to his friend Handel, explicitly stating it should form "the basis of an oratorio intended for performance in a secular setting." It sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, to have a religious work performed in a secular setting, but Jennens was hoping to promote Messiah to the theatre-going public, to remind them of their religious obligations, rather than the religious church-goers. The former was his target group, so to speak.

But why Dublin? Why not London? After all, Handel had been living in London for a number of years now, at the invitation of the King, and it was his second home. (His residence in the capital has since been turned into the Handel House Museum.) Handel had been disappointed by the reception given to his previous works by music audiences, and was unwilling to face another poor response. After all, you can only go through a few rejections before you get discouraged altogether. Choosing the city of Dublin to premiere Messiah, in a way, was using a smaller city as a testing ground for the work. Perhaps Handel also hoped to gauge the response to the work and make any necessary revisions before launching it in London - kind of like a focus of group of sorts.

Messiah can be said to have had some form of royal influence in its origin. It was a success in Dublin but back in London the success was less forthcoming. Perhaps it was due to the scale of the work, which had 53 movements and required large numbers of musicians. (One performance of the work advertised the presence of eight hundred musicians as a selling point.) But the work has established itself and its success needs no further scrutiny. Centuries on, it still remains part of the framework of Western choral music, and a core of Christmas music. In concert halls it is customary to stand for the "Hallelujah" chorus. It originates from a belief that later at the London premiere, King George II did so, out of respect for the Creator, and all his subjects were hence obliged to also stand.

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