Back in 1718, Handel had composed a highly successful masque, Hamman and Mordecai, ‘writ’ by Alexander Pope. The year after his annus horribilis, 1731, he revived the masque and things started to take a turn for the better. On 23rd February, with boys from the Chapel Royal and Bernard Gates (one of his regular soloists), Handel staged performances of it, renamed The History of Esther, at the Crown and Anchor tavern. One person who witnessed the performance, the Earl of Egmont, commented: ‘This oratoria or religious opera is exceeding fine, and the company were highly pleased, some of the parts being well performed.’
After this success, Handel proposed to stage it at the King’s Theatre, where his operas were usually performed. This caused a dreadful furore. Dr. Gibson, Bishop of London forbad it. He deemed it sacrilegious to perform a biblical work in such a theatre. Handel’s response to the ‘ban’ was to extend it to a full-length work, and he proceeded to perform it at the theatre, renamed simply Esther, on 2nd May the same year. He was very careful with the publicity though: ‘there will be no action on stage’; ‘the house will be fitted up in a decent manner’; ‘the music is so disposed after the manner of the coronation service’. On 6th May the Royal Family attended the performance in state. The new form, the English Oratorio had been born, and approved.
The issue of oratorio being performed in a theatre would rear its head some years later. In 1741 Charles Jennens had given Handel the libretto for Messiah. Famously, Handel composed it in 24 days. In April 1742 it received its first two performances in Dublin, to rapturous applause. In March the following year Handel performed it in the King’s Theatre. Here it was a disaster. The ‘public’ were offended that such a deeply religious work should be performed in a theatre. However, Handel would go on to give many performances of it, to great public acclaim, raising considerable funds for his favourite charity, the Foundling Hospital.
The Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children was the brain-child of Captain Thomas Coram, who was greatly concerned at the number of abandoned, destitute children on London’s streets.
In 1739 he persuaded King George II to grant a royal charter for the establishment of the hospital in Bloomsbury (in the region of the current British Library). Handel, along with his friend William Hogarth, became one of the governors in 1749. It was in that year Handel mounted a performance of his Music for the Royal Fireworks in aid of the hospital, to which the King subscribed £2,000. Handel went on to compose an anthem for the hospital and to donate an organ which he had previously bought for himself. To mark the inauguration of the organ he arranged a performance of Messiah on 1st May 1750. Tickets cost half a guinea (now £150) and were available in fashionable coffee and chocolate bars. Many seats were sold twice, and people were turned away. Handel was much perturbed by this and arranged a second performance for those who had missed out the first time.
The Messiah charity performance was an annual event until Handel’s death nine years later. The performances raised £11,000 (modern equivalent £1,540,000).
Since he was a very young man, Handel had been obsessed with Italian opera; indeed he travelled on his own to Italy where he was able to refine his setting of Italian texts. During the three years he spent there he graduated from being a brilliant keyboard player nicknamed Il Sassone (the Saxon) to being lauded as Il caro Sassone, composer of the latest hit opera, Agrippina.
In late 1710, aged 25, Handel travelled to England and settled permanently in London. Over the next 20 years opera would be his bread and butter. Opera was all the rage and Handel was phenomenally successful, becoming wealthy in the process.
1730 had been a triumphant year, but all changed in 1731, first with the death of his mother, the only woman he was ever close to. Opera had fallen out of fashion and consequently Handel made considerable losses. Operas have always been very expensive to stage. His ‘friends’ of 1730 disappeared, and we now find him living as a recluse, although sometimes he would be seen ‘lumbering around’ in Hyde Park.
Click here for information on ‘The birth of the English Oratorio’.