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Handel conducts London premiere of Messiah

This Day in World History

March 23, 1743

Handel conducts London premiere of Messiah

Source: NYPL.
On March 23, 1743, composer George Frideric Handel directed the first London performance of his sacred oratorio, Messiah. While the composition has become revered as a magnificent choral work — and a staple of the Christmas holiday season — it met some controversy when it first appeared.

Remarkably, Handel needed only three weeks in the summer of 1741 to write Messiah. As his text, he used a libretto compiled by Charles Jennens from verses of the Bible and from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. Jennens was apparently upset that Handel wrote the work in such a short time; he thought the sacred subject needed more time.

He was also annoyed because Handel debuted the work in Dublin in the spring of 1742, not reserving it for a London premiere. Leading Irish clerics (led by Jonathan Swift) insisted that, if their church choirs were to be used to sing the oratorio, ticket sales had to go to charity. That precedent established a longstanding tradition for Messiah.

When Handel finally prepared to present the work in London, more controversy arose. Some people objected to a work on a sacred theme being performed in a secular setting — London’s Covent Garden Theater. The controversy disappeared with the popular acceptance of Handel’s music, however. Even Jennens became reconciled to the composer, in part because Handel rewrote some sections his collaborator considered poor.

Today’s performances do not reflect the scores of these initial performances. Handel revised the piece often, and current productions use one or another of these later versions. The full Messiah tells not only the Christmas story but also of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Groups that perform the oratorio at Christmas generally only perform the first part.

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