Contributed by Colin Alderman
The next time you are looking for a good music question for a quiz, try this; apart from The Messiah, in which choral work does the world-famous Hallelujah Chorus appear? The answer is the Foundling Hospital Anthem, or ‘Blessed Are They That Consider The Poor’, as it is also known. That the most famous chorus in British, and possibly all, choral music should be included in a piece written to raise funds for the new Foundling Hospital is entirely appropriate. For without the Foundling Hospital, Handel’s masterpiece would probably have vanished into the musical history books with so much of Handel’s work.
It can be said with little fear of contradiction that the German-born musician and composer, George Frideric Handel, was and remains one of Britain’s favourite composers. Yet his popularity today is based mainly on only two of his many works, the orchestral ‘Water Music’ and the choral masterpiece, ‘The Messiah’. The latter was first performed in Dublin on April 13th 1742 in the Musick Hall, a benefit concert to raise funds for the Dublin debtors’ prison and hospital. It proved popular on its first appearance but this was not to last.
Today we tend to think of Messiah as a religious work but that was not Handel’s intention. He wrote it as an oratorio, a dramatic piece which just happened to be retelling a Bible story. Handel had written and performed several of these before, based mainly on stories from the Old Testament. Messiah was his first and only oratorio based on the New Testament and the performers are commentators on the story, not participants in it. The nature of the work made some people uneasy as it was designed to be performed in a theatre, not a church. So concerned was Handel about upsetting the audience that for The London premiere in the Covent Garden Theatre the title of The Messiah was dropped!
The 1743 London opening was not a success and The Messiah was, at this point, destined for a dusty shelf life of obscurity. However, whilst Handel had been writing the work, a new building was arising in what was to become known as Bloomsbury. The building of the Foundling Hospital and the charity to run it was the creation of one of the most remarkable men of Georgian England, Thomas Coram. A retired ship builder and sea captain, Coram and his wife had been horrified on their return to London to find so many babies abandoned in the streets, their bodies on the garbage heaps, and floating in the drains and tributaries of the Thames. For 17 years Coram walked the streets of London, knocking on the doors of the wealthy privileged and influential and by 1742 work was underway. With a Royal Charter granted by King George II in 1739, there would now be a place for mothers, often unmarried and young, to hand over their children for care and education.
Handel had been a generous donor to charities throughout his life and, perhaps inspired by the example of the painter William Hogarth, a Governor of the Foundling Hospital, offered to conduct a benefit concert in the newly-built chapel at the Foundling Hospital in May 1749. For this he composed a new work, the Foundling Hospital Anthem, which was mainly constituted of extracts from earlier pieces. It ended with the Hallelujah Chorus, lifted intact from the Messiah, a work which would have been known to hardly any of the audience. So successful was this concert, both musically and in terms of the finance raised for the Foundling Hospital, that Handel donated an organ to the chapel and returned to conduct the following year.
This time, however, Handel chose to perform The Messiah. It was the first time this work, never intended as devotional religious music, had been performed inside a church. This performance was so successful that he repeated it just two weeks later because some wealthy patrons had not been able to buy tickets for the first performance. Handel became a Governor of the Foundling Hospital, alongside Hogarth, and he conducted The Messiah every year in the Hospital Chapel until his death in 1759. Even then the good work continued as Handel bequeathed a “fair copy” of the score so that the Foundling Hospital could continue to raise money after his death. The copy of the score, and Handel’s Will, can be seen today at the Foundling Museum, adjacent to the site of the hospital and chapel which, sadly, were demolished following its closure in 1926.
Without doubt, the charitable performances of The Messiah at the Foundling Hospital imprinted the work firmly in the minds of the music-going public, where it has remained ever since. The Messiah, written for a small choir of 16 or so singers and an orchestra of 40, is now performed all over the world, year after year, by amateur and professional choirs and orchestras of much larger dimensions. It has even developed its own peculiar ritual, with the audience standing during the Hallelujah Chorus, because George II stood up for no apparent reason during one concert. This is not popular with all though, and the music writer Arthur Jacobs wrote, “The custom of the audience standing in the Hallelujah Chorus is now a gesture which merely encourages the bad habit of counting a performance of The Messiah as a quasi-religious rite”.
For most of us though, singers, musicians and audiences alike, the joy of The Messiah is in the glorious music that Handel has left us. And if by doing so we remember the continuing plight of children all over the world, I can’t help thinking that Handel would be rather pleased!