To suit the season, BBC2 is broadcasting Handel’s Messiah on Saturday – well, sort of… To quote from the BBC website: ‘Historian Amanda Vickery and BBC Radio 3 presenter Tom Service present this one-hour drama documentary which recreates the first performance of Messiah at London’s Foundling Hospital in 1750 and tells the heart-rending story of how this special fundraising concert helped maintain the hospital and heralded a golden age of philanthropy.’
Since the programme lasts one hour, and the running time of the Messiah (depending on cuts, tempi, etc.) is anywhere between two and two and a half hours (to say nothing of the dread words ‘drama documentary’) it seems likely that we will get rather more of Vickery and Service than of Handel, alas. This is part of the season on the Georgians which is currently breaking out all over the place: the British Library (over now, but brilliant), the Queen’s Gallery, the Royal Palaces, the Victorian and Albert Museum, and the BBC, to name but a few.
But Handel plus the Foundling Hospital means lots and lots of Cambridge Library Collection books! I wrote about Captain Coram and his great charitable enterprise almost exactly a year ago, when we reissued Memoranda, or, Chronicles of the Foundling Hospital (1847), by John Browlow, himself an alumnus of the institution. Brownlow also published The History and Design of the Foundling Hospital (1858), which will be available soon.
Among the various supporters and friends whom Coram roped in to become governors of the Hospital was the philanthropist Jonas Hanway, author of An Earnest Appeal for Mercy to the Children of the Poor (1766) and the man who endured ridicule by carrying an umbrella in public, before it became both fashionable and practical to do so. Dr Charles Burney had a plan to attach a music school to the Hospital, along the lines of the Pietà in Venice, but nothing came of it.
But the two people most often linked with Coram are of course Handel and the artist William Hogarth. In 1749, Handel organised a concert at the chapel which included a specially written work, known today as the Foundling Hospital Anthem, and this was so successful that he was asked to do it again the next year.
Handel had meanwhile introduced Messiah to the world not in London, but in Dublin, in 1742: its first London performance, at Covent Garden Theatre in 1743, was not well received. He revived it for two concerts in 1745, and then set it aside until 1749, again at Covent Garden. It was not until the charitable performance at the Foundling Hospital chapel in 1750, which was attended by the beau monde in best benevolent mode, that Handel’s masterpiece made the impact which placed it at the forefront of the sacred music repertoire, where it has remained ever since. The performance was revived yearly, with Handel (or his assistant John Christopher Smith) conducting until his death in 1759, and the tradition continued until 1777.
William Hogarth and his wife, themselves childless, were also staunch supporters. Hogarth donated paintings, and designed the Hospital’s uniform, coat of arms and publicity material, including admission tickets. And, of course, he painted the founder – one of the greatest and most psychologically acute portraits ever. The art exhibitions at the Hospital, which he started, and persuaded other painters (among them, Thomas Gainsborough, Allan Ramsay, and Joshua Reynolds) to contribute to, were as fashionable as the concerts, and brought in welcome revenue.
Let’s hope that the ‘heart-rending story’ we are promised for Saturday includes all this stuff, and doesn’t linger too long around actors in wigs and boy choristers in eighteenth-century waistcoats. Although of course the remedy is close to hand – reach for the CD and put Messiah on instead. And a very Happy Easter to you all!