Writing opera was a financially precarious business, then, as now. In 18th-century England, it was up to the composer to rent the theatre, hire the singers and musicians, and pay for costumes and scenery. Profits were hard to come by and the Italian operas Handel had been writing in the early years of his London career were falling out of fashion. In developing the English oratorio, the composer found a way to capitalise on the power of an orchestra, soloists and a choir of voices, while dispensing with the need for expensive sets, costumes and props.
However, oratorios, like operas, still required a large performing venue. Messiah premiered in Dublin in April 1742 in a charitable performance. For the London premiere the following year, Handel rented the Covent Garden Theatre from his friend John Rich for a week’s run. Although a popular form of entertainment, the theatre was considered disreputable by most and even sacrilegious by some, and was deemed an inappropriate place to perform the sacred story of the Messiah. Indeed Handel was so concerned about objections that he suppressed the word “Messiah” in advertisements – the work was listed only as “A new sacred Oratorio”. But even so it wasn’t a success: the Earl of Shaftesbury noted in his memoirs that, “partly from the scruples some person had entertained against carrying on such a performance in a Play House, and partly for not entering into the genius of the composition, [Messiah] was but indifferently relish’d”.
Had it not been for a newly established children’s charity, Britain’s best-loved and most famous choral work could have shared the fate of many of Handel’s operas and faded into obscurity. For, without the Foundling Hospital, Messiah would have been silenced.
In 1742, on the northern edge of London, the foundation stone had been laid for the Foundling Hospital, a major new public building in what is now Bloomsbury. Following 17 years of campaigning, the philanthropist Thomas Coram had been granted a royal charter in 1739 by George II to establish a new charity to care for the babies that would otherwise have been abandoned on doorsteps and rubbish heaps by desperate mothers, usually young and unmarried, who had nowhere else to turn.