In 1743, 275 years ago, the city of Dublin saw the world premiere of Handel’s oratorio Messiah. While there is no danger of that work ever falling into obscurity, the rich musical environment that Handel found in Dublin is otherwise virtually unknown. Hearing local players rehearse, Handel was impressed enough to write that “as for the instruments they are really excellent, Mr Dubourg being at the head of them, and the music sounds delightfully in this charming room, which puts me in such spirits…”. So what else did they play? What was Dublin’s sound-world in the 1740s? Who were the singers and instrumentalists? Where did they perform?

Peter Whelan directs Ensemble Marsyas

Bringing us closer to the music of Georgian Dublin this month is Ensemble Marsyas, directed by Peter Whelan, presenting a programme called ‘Rediscovering the Irish State Musick’. The name recalls Dublin’s leading instrumental ensemble at this time, the State Musick (based in Dublin Castle), which also performed for events across the city, including charity concerts. As well as works by two of the leading personalities associated with this group, Johann Cousser and Matthew Dubourg (who directed that first performance of Messiah), Ensemble Marsyas performs music that local musicians of the time would have known, including pieces by Henry Purcell, Thomas Roseingrave, William Boyce, Handel himself, Vivaldi, Corelli, and even Jonathan Swift (born 350 years ago this year).

The idea of recreating an early musical environment isn’t new, but it’s one we’re more used to seeing applied to faraway locations like the Palace of Versailles or the theatres of baroque Venice. Recent discoveries, however, have shone new light onto the Dublin music scene of this time, giving insights into the size and makeup of the original ensemble, and even a sense of some of the personalities of those involved.

Reviving the diversity of eighteenth-century Dublin’s musical heritage, these concerts will give us the chance to hear music not heard for nearly 300 years. Performances take place in Dublin Castle on August 12 and St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, on August 13.

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