Chester's link with Messiah
Handel's masterpiece has origins in the ancient city

FOR A PIECE of serious music supposedly dashed off in twenty-one days to enable George Frederick Handel to recover from senous debt, “Messiah” has done pretty well in the intervening years, and offers an example to others who suffer from fiscal folly. With Mendelssohn's carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Messiah stands proudly among the most popular of all Christmas pieces of music.

But that is not the only point at which the composers' destinies touched, for the first rehearsal of Handel's stirring oratorio was in Chester, and Mendelssohn fell in love with the city - and its pretty young girls - during a visit eight-eight years later. Messiah was first rehearsed in Chester in November, 174 1. Handel had composed it in London, and this great work, the most popular and widely known oratorio, has delighted us with its joy and genius down the centuries.

During the second week of that historic November, Handel was staying at the Golden Falcon in Northgate Street, on his way to Dublin, where the first performance was to take place. The Golden Falcon later succumbed and was replaced by the Northgate Brewery, which in turn and at length disappeared. Standing on the site now is the modem office block, Centurion House.

Charles Burney, at that time a 15-year old schoolboy and later a famous musi historian, recalled: "I was at the Public School in that city, and very well remember seeing him smoke a pipe over a dish of coffee at the Exchange coffee house; for being extremely anxious to see so extraordinary a man, I watched him narrowly as long as he remained in Chester, which, on account of the wind being unfavourable for his embarking at Parkgate, was several days.” Handel, unable to move on, wanted to try out some of the Messiah choruses.

Burney recalls that Handel enquired of Mr Baker "the organist, my first music master, to know whether there were any choirmen in the cathedral who could sing at sight (i.e. perform the music at one reading). Mr Baker recommended some singers, including a Mr Janson "who had a good bass voice, and was one of the best musicians in the choir.” The rehearsal took place at The Golden Falcon. But Janson, even after many attempts, was unable to sing the chorus And with his stripes we are healed.

Handel lost his temper, swore in four or five languages, and cried out in broken English, "You scoundrel! Did you not tell me you could sing at sight?" Janson replied "Yes, sir, and so I can: but not at first sight." However, Messiah soon became a familiar classic. Hence, Leighton-Lucas could tease... No breath of scandel Ever touched Handel. His music is as respectable As it is delectable. The composer of the simple carol Hark “The Herald Angels Sing”, Mendelssohn, also visited Chester - in 1829, on his way from Liverpool to Holywell.

He wrote: "In Chester a bright scene presented itself; the broad town-walls make a promenade round the town, and there I saw a girls' school marching along, whom I followed with my sketch-book. "The girls looked very pretty, the distance very blue, the houses and towers in the foreground dark grey; in the evening a gentle rain fell.” Later, in 1840, Mendelssohn wrote music for a chorus in praise of printing.

This music was fitted to the words "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", written by Charles Wesley 1739. Surprisingly, Mendelssohn thought his "Soldierlike and buxom tune", now so famous, unsuitable for the words! But both Messiah and Hark The Herald Angels Sing are now established Christmas favourites.