History of A Sacred Oratorio: most popular Christmas music scandalous and profane?


The genteel reception accorded the original debut performance stood in marked contrast to the savage hostility which greeted the work less than a year later in London. The English aristocracy and churchmen began an unrelenting campaign against the work and its creator. They labeled it “a profanation,” scandalized at “the sacrilege of converting the Life and Passion of Christ into a theatrical entertainment.” Some clergymen objected so strongly to the idea of printing the actual title on the program that the author was obliged to announce his great work as “A Sacred Oratorio.”

The city of London was hit on the one hand by fierce propaganda against the work, wherein the Oratorio was denounced as unsuitable and sacrilegious, and on the other hand by those – who never bothered to attend any performances – calling the author “an insufferable German upstart” and “a dissolute fellow.” This was the man who Haydn, on hearing the chorus, later said, “He is the master of us all” and of whom Beethoven, when asked who was the greatest composer said, “to him I bow the knee.” Yes, the London debut was quite different from the enthusiastic reception that Handel got a year earlier in Dublin when he first performed the sacred oratorio “Messiah.”

Indeed, when Handel’s Messiah premiered in Dublin in 1742 by the choirs of St. Patrick Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral (pictured above,) the demand for tickets was so great that the newspapers made an unusual request. Editors asked that ladies who planned to attend refrain from wearing hoop skirts and that gentlemen leave their swords at home. This would free up more space and allow more people to be seated.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

With thanks to Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story”

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