- Handel's Messiah in Dublin
George Frederick Handel's Messiah is numbered among the most universally famous compositions of all time and arguably is the most famous of all English oratorios. Such acclaim and appreciation, however, began in Dublin where the first performance took place, for by 1741, the year the work was completed, Handel's reputation and fortunes in London had severely deteriorated.
Handel, who was born in Halle in Upper Saxony, had arrived in London when he was twenty-seven years old. He had already been an assistant organist in Halle; a violinist in the orchestra at Hamburg (which he also conducted on occasion), the composer of four operas and the Passion of St. Luke; and in Italy the associate of Cavalli, Carissimi, the Scarlattis, Corelli, and many other great composers. So, when he moved to England, where he quickly took out papers of naturalization to become an English subject, he came with already written, and ideas for yet-to-be-written, operas that were saturated in the Italian style.
At first Handel had been a national hero for supplying London with operas, so much a hero, in fact, that within seven years of his arrival, an opera company, the Royal Academy of Music, was [End Page 57] formed under Handel's musical direction with some sharing of directorship with Attilio, Ariosti, and most significantly for our point here Giovanni Battista Bononcini.
Then in 1729, the John Gay/John Christian Pepusch masterpiece The Beggar's Opera stole the audience from the Royal Academy of Music and left that enterprise bankrupt. The Beggar's Opera, as importantly as anything else, made clear that Italian opera sung in Italian could not maintain the interest of the English audience. The Beggar's Opera also was a major piece of satire, and in this "great age of satire," that fact catered to one of the prominent tastes of London theater goers.
It was not just the "outmoded" genre of Italian opera, however, that accounted for Handel's drop from public favor. Handel the person was jealous, hot tempered, self-centered, argumentative, and vituperative, and the numerous incidents that resulted from these unattractive qualities were well known throughout London. His battles were the talk of the town and fodder for the wits. In this regard, Handel's reputation had preceded him to London. Several years before he established residence in England, he had agreed to conduct Johann Mattheson's opera Cleopatra at the Keiser's Opera House in Hamburg. The purpose was to relieve Mattheson who was himself singing the role of Antonio. After Antonio was "killed" in the opera, however, Mattheson had no further function on stage, so he proceeded to the pit to replace Handel. Handel was so incensed that he challenged Mattheson to a duel. They did indeed fight, and Handel's life was saved only by a large metal button that snapped Mattheson's rapier.1
When the second season of the Royal Academy of Music brought the male contralto Senesino, the prima donnas Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni (whose quarrels were legendary), and Bononcini as a competitive composer, the public was already prepared for the fireworks that were inevitable. It was standard practice for singers of great reputation to improvise, to improve on the composer, but Handel's egoism allowed few such improvements. On one occasion [End Page 58] when Cuzzoni continually refused to sing what Handel had written, he, a giant of a man, grabbed her around the waist, lifted her from the floor, and threatened to drop her out the window.2 Parenthetically, one can only wonder what Handel might have done to Joan Sutherland in our own time whose habit of adding excessive ornaments was so great that the near-legendary conductor Sir Adrian Boult once tartly suggested publication of a Joan Sutherland record titled "Mad Scenes from Messiah." But back to eighteenth-century London and Handel's known quarrels. In Bononcini, Handel could see only an unworthy competitor, particularly when he was named composer and conductor for the new King's Theater specifically to rival Handel. All of this erupted into a bitter war, causing the public to reduce the...