Messiah and the choirs of St Patrick's and Christ Church Cathedrals, in Dublin

Published 02 April 2013  |  
(RCB Library C6.1.24.3.6)
Detail from the Hallelujah chorus, part book of Christ Church cathedral

At noon on the 13 April some 271 years ago, the first performance of Handel's Messiah took place in Neal's Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin. Although the Musick Hall is no longer there, the event is remembered today with an annual performance in Fishamble Street by members of Our Lady's Choral Society, who faithfully assemble in the street, in the shadow of Christ Church cathedral, - hail, rain or shine – to sing the famous Hallelujah Chorus.

A less well known aspect of the story is that at the first performance of Messiah five out of the eight soloists, as well as members of the chorus, were drawn from the ranks of the choirs of the Church of Ireland's two cathedrals in Dublin - Christ Church and St Patrick's. The involvement of the cathedral choirs in this performance reflected the growing opportunities for choirmen and choristers to sing outside of the usual cathedral settings, and also suggested that the cathedrals had a very competent body of singers who were capable of a high standard of performance. However, the involvement of cathedral singers in secular concerts was not always welcomed by the cathedral authorities. In December 1741, for example, the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church had threatened to discipline the organist and any choirman or chorister who assisted at musical performances without the special leave of the chapter.

(RCB Library C6.1.24.3.6)
Christ Church cathedral, part book

Whilst the records of both cathedral chapters are strangely silent about the participation of cathedral singers in Messiah on 13 April and so it is not known if the singers had the blessing of the cathedral chapters for the historic performance, other interesting sources in their record collections (now safely housed at the RCB Library) provide many other nuggets of evidence about the Messiah story. A selection is presented online as April's Archive of the Month at the RCB Library – the repository where the records of both cathedrals are held.

Scores of the oratorio in the Christ Church music books indicate how the work was subsequently absorbed into its choral repertoires, while surviving orders of service and related concert programmes in the St Patrick's cathedral collection of records, reveal, for example, that two celebratory Messiah bicentenary concerts were held in 1942 given by members of the united cathedral choirs at successive performances of the work – the first in St Patrick's cathedral on Monday 13 April, and the second in Christ Church cathedral on Tuesday 14 April 1942. In the commemorative programme pictured below the names of choir members in both 1742 and 1942 are recorded.

(Photo: RCB Library)

Source: RCB Library

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