"A vain fool crazed by his wealth, who, were he in Heaven, would criticize the Lord Almighty" was Dr. Johnson's description of Charles Jennens, a London dilettante who had supplied the texts for Handel's Saul and L'Allegro. In July of 1741, Jennens mentioned "another Scripture collection" which he claimed to have assembled by himself, to be set to music by Handel.
"I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it," wrote Jennens, "that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah."
In the meantime, William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, invited Handel to present a series of concerts in Dublin "for the relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn's Quay."
Handel arrived in Dublin on November 18, 1741 and wrote to Jennens: "I cannot sufficiently express the kind treatment I receive here, but the Politeness of this generous Nation cannot be unknown to you, so I let you judge of the satisfaction I enjoy, passing my time with honour, profit and pleasure."
The first performance, on April 13, 1742 at the New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, was sold out. The ladies were requested to "come without hoops" and the gentlemen to "come without their Swords," to make more room for the throng.
The performers included the Matthew Dubourg's Dublin State Band, which Jonathan Swift called "a club of fiddlers," but which Charles Burney describled as "very respectable." The soloists were sopranos Christina Maria Avoglio and a Mrs. Maclaine, altos Susanna Cibber (who had taken refuge in Ireland from her abusive husband), William Lambe and Joseph Ward, tenors James Baileys and John Church, and basses John Hill and John Mason. All the men came from the choirs of Christ Church and St. Patrick's Cathedrals, which also took part. The nine soloists joined the chorus when not soloing. (Only once, in 1749, did Handel employ only four vocal soloists.) Handel directed from the harpsichord; Mr. Maclaine played organ.
Faulkner's Dublin Journal reported that "the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear."
After another sold-out performance in Dublin, Handel departed on August 13, 1742, hoping to repeat his success in London. But an array of enemies, and a few friends, was all too ready to pounce on Messiah. Jennens, for one, opined, "he has made a fine Entertainment of it, tho' not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition."
Others thought it blasphemous to perform a sacred work in a secular building. Four days before the first London performance, a blistering attack appeared in the paper: "How will this appear to After-Ages, when it shall be read in History, that in such an Age the People of England were arriv'd to such a Height of Impiety and Prophaneness, that most sacred Things were suffer'd to be us'd as public Diversions."
Messiah was introduced in London at Covent Garden Theatre on March 23, 1743 "for the Benefit and Increase of a Fund establish'd for the Support of Decay'd Musicians and their Families," according to the announcement. The reception by both audience and critics was cool. Not one review of the performance was printed in the papers. "I should be sorry if I only entertained them," remarked Handel. "I wish to make them better." It was King George II who began the tradition of standing during the "Hallelujah" Chorus.
Messiah never really caught on with London concert-goers until 1750, when Handel inaugurated annual charity performances for the Foundling Hospital. The Hospital had been established to aid the innocent victims of gin. According to one account, the popularity of gin-drinking produced children who were "starved and naked at home" and "either become a burthen to their parishes or ... are forced to beg whilst they are children, and as they grow up learn to pilfer and steal."
Handel's last public appearance was on April 6, 1759, when he directed a performance of Messiah from the harpsichord. He died eight days later.
Messiah is in three parts. The first treats God's Prophecy of the coming Messiah. The second describes Christ's suffering and victory over death. The third part depicts the Redemption of mankind through Christ's Resurrection. "Sacred refers to the subject," writes Winton Dean, "not to the style of music or Handel's purpose in writing it."