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Jonathan Swift – A Literary Giant

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift, considered one of the greatest of all satirists, and whose literary legacy is still vital, was born on 30th November 1667 at 9 Hoey’s Court (beside St Werburgh’s Church, Dublin) in the home of his uncle Godwin Swift. His father, Jonathan, had died when his wife Abigail was only two months pregnant, and the infant was raised in his uncle’s household.

After schooling in Kilkenny College he entered Trinity College and graduated with a BA in 1686. One of his friends there was William Congrieve who was writing satire and it impressed the young Swift. One of Swift’s many quotes shows his clear and acerbic observation:
Satire is a sort of glass, where beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.

After college he went to London and worked as Secretary to Sir William Temple, a high-ranking diplomat. As part of his work he often met King William III who visited Temple seeking his advice. It was a meteoric rise for the young man who wanted more. And it was there that he met Esther Johnson ‘Stella’ with whom he was friendly until her death, in Dublin. Although there has been much conjecture about their relationship there is no proof of marriage. She is, however, buried beside him although in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral

After no significant advancement he left Temple and became a Church of Ireland priest in 1694. And after an initial, unhappy posting to a parish near Carrickfergus he returned to Temple, until he died in 1699. He then moved to London and secured a similar position with Robert Harley, the Lord Treasurer. And, he also met some of the country’s greatest writers, including, Alexander Pope, John Gay and John Arbuthnot, Queen Anne’s physician. Together they formed the Scriblerus Club where they and other like-minded men discussed the issues of the day.

In 1704 his first book A Tale of a Tub was published and it got a hostile reception, especially from the Queen. The satire highlighted corruption in churches and schools and it had a negative effect on his future advancement in the Church. And in 1713, after petitioning for years, he accepted the offer to be Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, something that was way down on his list. But there he had time to write and that is what he did with the greatest distinction, not only for its sharpness but for the passion he brought to it. His take on writing is as resonant today as it was then:
The proper words in the proper places are the true definition of style.

Gulliver's Travels - Original

Gulliver’s Travels – Original

During his early years as Dean he wrote and published many pamphlets anonymously (so as to avoid retribution), that addressed various social issues. His Drapier’s Letters (1724-25) tackled the planned imposition of privately minted copper coinage. Swift saw that this would devalue the local economy and it was just another injustice being piled on Ireland. The plan was soon withdrawn and Swift’s contribution quietly acknowledged. Other works in this style are his Modest Proposal, that suggests the poor Irish should, to improve their economic situation, sell their children as food to the rich, and the wonderfully titled An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity. In 1726 his Gulliver’s Travels, another satire that is still popular and relevant, was published to great acclaim.

Now approaching his sixties the vertigo that had plagued him for years became more pronounced and it had a most debilitating effect. It was discovered, almost a century after his death, by the renowned Dublin physician Sir William Wilde (Oscar’s father) that Swift had suffered from Meniere’s disease that was not diagnosed during his life time.

In 1742 when GF Handel planned to have the debut of Messiah performed in Dublin he went to speak with Swift about hiring some of his singers. Handel, who  had already acquired the services of singers from Christ Church Cathedral, found Swift obstructive. He did not like the idea of such sacred music being played in a music hall but, thankfully, he relented and agreed to let the King’s Composer have his wish. He attended the performance and enjoyed it immensely. By now he was in great distress, his black future having finally arrived. Later that year he was committed to a home, and one visitor who knew him well was upset to note that ‘the man of words had not spoken one word for a year’. In his will he left £12,000 (over £3m today) for the building of a hospital for those with mental health issues. As he observed:
Power is no blessing in itself, except when it is used to protect the innocent.

And that hospital, St Patrick’s, still continues his altruistic legacy in offering assistance to those in need. He died on the 19th October 1745, a few weeks short of his 78th birthday, and is buried in his beloved St Patrick’s Cathedral.

St Patrick's Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral

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On the radio – 2

A few days ago I was delighted to be a guest on The History Show on Limerick City Community Radio, hosted by John O’Carroll. The two subjects who I talked about were:

  • Sir Hugh Lane – art dealer, promoter, gallery director and patron of Irish Art ; and
  • Jonathan Swift – scholar, writer, satirist, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral and hospital patron.

Both of these men made immense and unique contributions to Ireland that we still enjoy and, no doubt, will the generations to follow.

 

 

Sir Hugh Lane

Sir Hugh Lane

Dean Jonathan Swift

Dean Jonathan Swift

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On the radio

A few days ago I was delighted to be a guest on The History Show on Limerick City Community Radio, hosted by John O’Carroll. The two topics I talked about were:

  • The publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 (95th anniversary) and the growth in popularity of Bloomsday; and
  • The premiere of GF Handel’s Messiah in 1742 (275th anniversary) and his time in Dublin.

 

Link (click to listen): The History Show

James Joyce

James Joyce

GF Handel

GF Handel

 

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Handel’s Messiah – Dublin’s Lucky Break

GF Handel

GF Handel

It is often said that ‘timing is everything’ and it certainly was the case when George Frideric Handel arrived in Dublin in November 1741. For he was carrying with him the work that was premiered five months later, and which forever ties the German composer and the city together.

The Duke of Devonshire, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, invited Handel, who was at the height of his power and popularity, to play a series of concerts. Matthew Dubourg, the Irish violinist and concertmaster, arranged and selected the musicians. Handel’s concerts between December 1741 and February 1742 were a great success, and he decided to perform a free concert (no fee charged) to raise money for three charities when he would perform Messiah. Handel’s collaborator and librettist Charles Jennens had written the oratorio in the July 1741. The composer completed the music, all 259 pages, in just 24 days between August and September. And, luckily for Dublin, did not perform it.

Neal's Music Hall

Neal’s Music Hall

Dubourg arranged for singers from both Christ Church Cathedral and St Patrick’s Cathedral to take part and sing what would become the famous work,  Hallelujah.  Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s, did not approve of their participation on the grounds that he disliked Messiah and preferred ‘A Sacred Oratorio’. He relented and, as they say ‘the rest is history’.

St Michan's Church

St Michan’s Church

While in Dublin, Handel stayed in Lower Abbey Street and rehearsed much of the oratorio in St Michan’s Church. (The organ that he used is still in use.)   After the success of his earlier concerts there was a great demand for tickets, and over 700 patrons showed up at Neal’s Musick Hall, Fishamble Street on 13th April 1742. (Sadly, like so much ‘development’ carried out in the city over the centuries, the hall was badly treated and only the front arch of the original building remains.) Due to the expected crowding men were asked to ‘leave their swords at home, and women to refrain from wearing hoop skirts.’ It was a lively affair and in the words of one enthusiastic critic: ‘The sublime, the grand and the tender, adapted to the most elevated and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.’  Handel was at the ‘top of his game’.

Messiah, written in stone

Messiah, written in stone

Handel led the performance and played the harpsichord, while Dubourg played violin and conducted the orchestra.And history was made. The oratorio was an immediate success, and Handel performed it again in July (for his own financial benefit) before returning to London. But what a leaving present he gave us. Hallelujah!

Hallelujah Chorus in Fishamble Street

Hallelujah Chorus in Fishamble Street

 

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