When GF Handel arrived by boat from Holyhead during the winter of 1741, his career was in the doldrums. His last two operas had flopped in London and he saw potential in Dublin for a change of direction.
He cut out the expensive costumes and staging, applied his opera-writing skills to a religious text and it is a familiar fact that Handel’s Messiah made its debut in Dublin in April 1742.
It was a box-office hit prompting the relaxation of the dress code (no skirt hoops or ceremonial swords) allowing the maximum number to be packed in to the Great Hall in Fishamble St.
But what drew the celebrated Baroque master to Ireland and what did he find when he arrived here?
Growing up in Celbridge, Co Kildare, these questions piqued the childhood curiosity of Peter Whelan, who has been delving into the archives to uncover the official soundtrack of 18th-century Ireland.
Whelan will go a step further in bringing the scholarly research to life when he leads his Marsyas Ensemble at Kilkenny Arts Festival and in Dublin in concerts that set Handel’s work alongside that of his contemporaries, active in the cultural milieu of Dublin in 1742.
In these concerts, Whelan hopes not only to exhume some interesting music but also to banish some misconceptions about music in 18th-century Ireland.
“Because Dublin was the second-largest city in the British Empire, there is a feeling that music in Dublin was just a mini version of what was coming out of London at the time but that is not strictly true. Dublin had its own distinct musical style and was very cosmopolitan.”
Over the last 20 years, academics have unearthed music and documents written in Dublin, sometimes in the most unlikely places.
Perhaps the most remarkable case of serendipitous survival is a serenade by Johann Cousser, which was repatriated to Germany from Russia in 1991 having been seized as war booty by the Red Army during the Second World War.
Cousser, a Hungarian Jew raised in Germany, came to Ireland via France where he studied with Lully at the court of Louis XIV. He spent two decades in Dublin rising to the prestigious job of Master of the King’s Musick, where he injected a French sophistication into his music for state occasions.
Whelan enjoys the hunt for clues to the past and enthuses on the recent find of a treasure trove of scores in a library.
He gleefully describes one document held in Yale Library: “In a notebook described as his ‘commonplace book’, Cousser records the names and addresses of all the musicians he dealt with in Dublin as well as the dimensions of the various halls he worked in.
There are even coloured drawings as though he had been left babysitting and was keeping small children entertained.”
Collaboration is crucial for Whelan, who, while happily studying piano, took up the bassoon for the greater opportunities to participate in ensembles. After 20 years as a professional musician, he has made many connections all over Europe and is well placed to gather around him the forces he needs to execute his projects.
He is principal bassoon of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and regularly performs as a soloist with the growing number of early music ensembles on the international scene.
Increasingly, he is moving to assume a directing role and was last in Ireland with the Opera Theatre Company tour of Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea which he directed from the harpsichord.
In Kilkenny, Whelan will direct a version of Handel’s Messiah close to that heard at the premiere in Dublin.
In line with current scholarship, Whelan will match Handel’s approach and use a small chorus of a dozen singers drawn from Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedral.
In the Dublin version, in each of the three parts, Handel included a central aria for Susanna Cibber, a famous actress who fled to Dublin, bringing the frisson of a tabloid sex scandal to the premiere.
Whelan notes that Messiah was written for a theatre-going audience — the first time Messiah was performed in a church was in Cork at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in 1744.
While Whelan acknowledges the association with British dominion caused problems, he feels now is a good time for re-evaluation of the position of this music in our artistic heritage.
“This project taps into our Irish identity. This was the scene in Ireland which attracted Handel and made Messiah such a success.
"I think people will be surprised by the music that was written in Ireland for an Irish audience and we can enjoy it just as we appreciate the Georgian architecture in which it was first heard.”