George Frideric Handel’s masterpiece, his sacred oratorio Messiah is a turning point in music history for a whole host of reasons quite apart from its creative brilliance.
Handel had lived in England since 1712, and had built his formidable reputation there largely on the back of his Italian operas. But by the 1730s, public taste had begun to change, a reflection of a growing middle class. Opera then as now has been a financially risky business, and it fell largely to the lot of the composer to rent the theatre and pay for the sets, costumes, and the singers and musicians. Italian opera seemed to be falling out of favour, and box office returns were becoming dismal. Handel turned increasingly to the English-language oratorio; this allowed him to stage an opera in all but name, with soloists, full chorus and orchestra, but without the expense of costumes, sets and props. The oratorios drew inspiration from mythical and Biblical themes for their subject. Messiah was his sixth such work, and after its phenomenal success he never ever returned to Italian opera again.
Handel also would have heartily approved of the modern-day catch-phrase “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” He recycled (music, that is) much before the word was even coined. For instance, the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest appears in his oratorio Esther; another oratorio Israel in Egypt reuses sections of his funeral anthem for Queen Caroline; and Messiah itself borrows from some of his earlier Italian music. He borrowed from his contemporaries like Telemann as well. But this was not regarded as plagiarism; far from it. Contemporary composer William Boyce lavished high praise on Handel for it: “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds.” And so it was that the famous Hallelujah chorus from Messiah finds its way into London’s Foundling Hospital Anthem.
The story of the Foundling Hospital is closely linked with Handel. His sacred oratorios, like his operas, needed a large venue for their performance. A public theatre was seen as too profane a site, especially for a subject as holy as the life of the Messiah. Although Messiah premiered in Dublin in 1742, its London run at Covent Garden Theatre did not fare well, and might well have faded into obscurity. But here Fate and Charity lent a helping hand.
The foundation stone had been laid in 1742 in north London (today Bloomsbury) for the Foundling Hospital, an initiative of the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram that had come to fruition after decades of public campaigning. He was given a royal charter by King George II in 1739 to start a charity that would care for babies abandoned on doorsteps and garbage piles by unwed, destitute mothers; “the education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children”. From the outset, it had a strong link with the creative arts: the painter William Hogarth, a personal friend of Coram, was its first Governor; and he persuaded his contemporaries Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough to donate their paintings as well. The Foundling Hospital in effect became the first public art gallery in the British Isles. Visitors could not only admire the art, but observe the work of the charity and be encouraged to make a contribution.
Handel saw an opportunity here too. In the Foundling Hospital’s chapel was a ready-made performance venue for his oratorios. And it was being funded by his own royal patron George II. In 1749, he offered to conduct a benefit concert, with his own “specially written” Foundling Hospital anthem, which starts with the text of Psalm 41: “Blessed are they that consider the poor and needy…they deliver the poor that crieth, the fatherless.” The anthem is a pastiche of his recycled tunes that culminate in the Hallelujah chorus, which at that time was still unfamiliar to English audiences. Also on the programme was his Music for the Royal Fireworks, which had premiered a month prior, with its Vauxhall Gardens rehearsal causing a three-hour traffic jam of horse carriages, a testament to the popularity of Handel’s music.
The Foundling Hospital benefit concert was a whopping success, and Handel returned the next year for another benefit concert. And this time he chose Messiah. This concert was sold-out, and patrons had to be turned away at the door. A repeat concert was held two weeks later. In gratitude, the hospital made Handel a governor of the charity. And Messiah was performed there annually thereafter as a benefit concert until the 1770s. Handel conducted or attended every performance until his death in 1759.
It proved to be a symbiotic relationship. The Foundling Hospital succeeded in making Messiah a British favourite; and Messiah earned thousands of pounds for the charity. The original score and orchestral parts for Messiah were left by Handel in his will to the Foundling Hospital, where they are still on display.
The charity continues to this day as Coram, or the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, and is one of London’s largest children’s charities.
This exciting interface between charity and the creative arts exemplified in this true story inspires us at Child’s Play India Foundation as well.
(An edited version of this article was published on 23 March 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)