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By Brian McGowan
What do Dublin and Handel have in common? Much, it turns out.
But first, a word about a recent trip to Ireland, and some discussion on celebratory music of the mid-18th century.
With COVID on the wane, a two-year-delayed journey was kicked back into high gear, and in late September a party of four (my wife and I and two good friends) set foot in Ireland’s capital, eager to put some miles on our walking shoes as we saw the sights. For our friends, this was their first visit to Ireland; for us, our second. We wondered had Dublin changed much in 20-plus years.
It had. Construction projects abounded, a sign of a thriving economy. Bright glass facades and vibrant colors had replaced previously gritty sights along the River Liffey. The city was much more cosmopolitan. While happy that Dublin and her inhabitants are faring well, I found something sad about the loss of the city’s legendary edginess, which gave it a distinctive character.
One place that still holds its edge, while allowing improvement, is Temple Bar, a unique Dublin neighborhood. Once home to some of Dublin’s seediest streets, it now comfortably blends old and new. It was also where we tasted the best Guinness ever poured, in an establishment the name of which, unfortunately, was lost over the next 10 days of travel.
Not so a nearby street called Fishamble Street, which holds a claim to fame few other streets can rival.
But first, that promised word about 18th century celebratory music, in particular, George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.” Composed to celebrate Easter, it has become a Christmas staple. One is guaranteed during the season to hear this magnificent piece many times, whether performed at Carnegie Hall or a high school auditorium.
Aside from “Silent Night,” few works are as fused with the season as this one. Completed in September 1741, the “Messiah” had its first public performance at a theater called Neal’s New Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin on Apr. 13, 1742. It has been rewarding its listeners with an auditory feast ever since.
Was Handel British? Well, no, and yes. He was born in 1685 in Halle, in modern-day Germany, and spent time in Hamburg and Italy. He moved to London in 1712. He became a British citizen in 1727, by an act of Parliament, and died in London in 1759.
But how did he come to be in Ireland in April 1742? The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time, William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire, invited him there. At that time Ireland was an integral part of the British Empire, and Cavendish was the king’s personal representative.
Dublin was no cultural backwater, but rather held a reputation as the empire’s “second city,” the first obviously being London. The invitation came at a time of ill health and mounting debt for Handel, and he seized the opportunity. His performance of “Messiah” at Neal’s was not his first appearance there. Several earlier performances of other works of his had also been held, all to acclaim.
Handel’s reputation, which had been at a low in England, began to rebuild. He decided it was time to unveil his masterwork. The debut performance of “Messiah” was a resounding success. Proceeds went to several Dublin charities, one for prisoners and two for the poor. A second performance netted over £100,000 (today’s money) for Handel, helping him rebuild his reputation as one of the greatest composers of all time.
Handel left Ireland that June, promising to return. He never did, but always felt a fondness for Ireland. The feeling was mutual. Today, every April, there is an outdoor performance of “Messiah” at the site of the old music hall on Fishamble Street. Now demolished, it provides a prime example of how music can span generations, cultures and the march of time.
And yes, the Irish also sing it at Christmas!
Longtime Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at email@example.com. He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the Battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.
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