By my reckoning, we’re now officially in that magical time of year. The tree is up, the shopping is done, and the blur of holiday staff parties is underway. Our credit cards may be tired, if not melted, but with a little holiday cheer (liquid or otherwise), we can wondrously put out of mind the irksome consequences to be dealt with by our 2019 selves. For our great bounty, we should be grateful to friends and family, and to the significant shift in lending policies that did away with debtors’ prison.
Fortunately the concept of being sent to languish in the clink until you could pay your debts went the way of the dodo right around the same time Charles Dickens did. Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, this was no fiction of the prodigious Dickensian imagination. For some of our forbears, debtors’ prison was a frightening reality. And once in, it was a Herculean task getting out. Unless you had the great good fortune to cross paths with George Frederick Handel.
Handel was a German-born bon vivant who, after a brief stint in sunny Italy, decided to make a permanent move to significantly less sunny England. Dreary London seemed to suit Mr. Handel, and his operas and sacred works soon became the toast of the town, earning him a handsome salary from none other than the Queen herself. But it wasn’t until he’d already spent thirty years in the British Isles that he penned a work that would permanently fix his name among history’s brightest musical stars. This work was Messiah.
In a customary blaze of astounding productivity, Handel created his Messiah in a few short weeks. The score then sat on a shelf collecting dust for half a year until Handel found himself trying to rustle up work in Dublin, of all places. He patched together an orchestra, a couple of choirs and four soloists, and in April (not December!) of 1742, in the Great Music Hall on Dublin’s somewhat less grandiloquently named Fishamble Street, Messiah came into the world.
What an occasion it was. Seven hundred people were crammed into the hall for the premiere. So little elbow room there was that a notice was posted prior to the concert that kindly asked gentlemen to remove their swords and that ladies refrain from wearing hoops in their dresses. It was an unqualified success.
The concert had been arranged as a benefit for several local charities, including one that provided prisoners debt relief. Box office sales exceeded a whopping £400, eventually allowing the release of 142 exceedingly grateful prisoners.
Since that day over 275 years ago, Messiah has become an enduring and essential piece of our heritage. For many, it is an annual affirmation of the Christ story celebrated in an increasingly secular age; for some, it’s the somehow eternally sparkling music that endears; and for still others, it has simply become part of the cherished traditions of Christmas.
I’m fairly certain that swords are still frowned upon in most performances of Messiah, and I can’t recall recently seeing a patron of either sex in a hoop skirt. Mercifully though, those among us with formidable credit card balances are no longer locked away. Still, a little of Mr. Handel’s seasonal charity wouldn’t go amiss.