Handel’s Messiah in a Music Festival
While researching Handel’s Messiah I found a program in the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives for a music festival that took place in May, 1881. I found this program intriguing because it described an elaborate festival that lasted four days. Handel’s Messiah was performed on the third night of the festival. Upon doing further research, I found out just how popular the oratorio had become since its premiere.
I found a New York Times review from May 4, 1881 that showed how successful the first day of the festival had been. The festival took place in the newly constructed 7th Regiment Armory and over 8000 people attended on the first day. There was space reserved for President Garfield as well. It was impressive to see that Messiah, which was premiered in a small hall in Dublin, was performed for an audience of thousands of people over a hundred years later. Messiah’s success is so fascinating considering that Charles Jennens, who worked with Handel, was upset with the quality of Handel’s Messiah. Jennens didn’t even consider Messiah fit for public performance.
While reading the New York Philharmonic program, I noticed that Messiah was praised for being influenced by Christianity, which also diverges from the perception of the oratorio directly after its premiere. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin during Messiah’s premiere, at first refused to allow any vicars to perform in the premiere. Charles Jennens believed that the composition was inadequate for a sacred work. Messiah may not have had the support of the church at the time; however, it is now considered a religious composition. The program demonstrated the change in the perception of the oratorio, exclaiming “feel the glow that beams out from the songs and choruses of The Messiah, each instinct with a religious fervor as warm and pulsating as though it were the product of a primitive age in the history of religion.”