Kilkenny Arts Festival preview: Acclaimed Irish bassoonist, harpsichordist and conductor Peter Whelan will lead Ensemble Marsyas in a series of three concerts featuring orchestra, chorus and a suite of world-class vocal and instrumental soloists – that tells the remarkable story of Handel’s stay in Ireland under the title of Mr Handel’s Adventures in Ireland.

Here, Peter Whelan writes for Culture about getting a Handel* on such a unique project.

This year, 2017 marks a double anniversary: the 275th anniversary of Messiah in Ireland and the 350th of the birth of Jonathan Swift. Swift might not have appreciated that coincidence. ‘I would not give a farthing for all the music in the universe’, he once remarked. But his acerbic commentary on the latest in musical fashions has inspired us to explore the broader social context of the musical performance in Ireland under the Georges, and to seek answers to questions that have intrigued me since I was a child and learned the now-familiar fact that Messiah received its first performance in Fishamble Street, Dublin, in 1742. But what did Handel find when he arrived in Ireland? Who were the Irish singers and musicians who so pleased Handel? What music gave soul to the elegant symmetries of Ireland’s Georgian architecture? What was the soundtrack to eighteenth-century Ireland?

Acclaimed Irish bassoonist, harpsichordist and conductor Peter Whelan

It has been an enormous personal privilege for me to have this opportunity to work with such outstanding colleagues in stagecraft, performance and scholarship in developing this concert which will, I hope, introduce - or, rather, re-introduce - our audience to ‘new’ eighteenth-century Irish music while at the same time enabling us to experience familiar music with new ears.

This has only been possible because of the richness of musicological research in recent years by scholars who have unearthed documents of Irish musical interest in libraries and collections across the world. Perhaps the remarkable case of serendipitous survival is the Serenata by Cousser which we perform in our first concert: the score was returned to Germany in 1991 having been seized as war booty by the Red Army during the Second World War.

Thanks to remarkable discoveries such as these, we now have a much fuller picture of the music scene in Georgian Dublin. In particular we understand a great deal about the size and make-up of the ‘Irish State Musick’ — the band based at Dublin Castle which would have been the primary provider of musicians for Handel. Now, we hope to breathe new life into the forgotten voices of the musicians of Ireland’s ‘Golden Age’, hearing them speak again for the first time in almost 300 years - eavesdropping on the leading composers and musicians whom Handel would have encountered working in Ireland in the eighteenth century.

One of the highlights is the Anthem by Boyce (commissioned by the Mercer’s Hospital Charity) which has been completely overshadowed by Messiah. This exceptionally fine piece has a striking orchestral overture which was later reworked into a Symphony by Boyce. Also the Serenata by Cousser, which is one of the earliest extant examples of opera composed in Ireland for Irish audiences complete with stage instructions (albeit on a small scale). Cousser here introduces the fashionable French style of Louis XIV’s Versailles to the Dublin Court. Look out for an early example of the pantomime dame - the character of Discord is clearly written for a tenor voice but is referred to as ‘she’ in the libretto.

Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel by John Faber

Finally, the Dubourg, which is a particularly exciting discovery. Until now Dubourg was known primarily as a virtuoso violinist and for his association with Handel (mostly through the ‘Welcome Home, Mr. Dubourg!’ anecdote). All the works you will hear tonight have been salvaged from four volumes of manuscripts housed at the Royal College of Music in London which have almost certainly not been heard since their first performance in Dublin Castle in the eighteenth-century (even the composers’s grandson did not know of their whereabouts). In this collection we also found some Irish traditional melodies sketched in Dubourg’s hand with lyrics phonetically translated from Gaelic into English (Dubourg was allegedly fond of attending country fairs and disguising himself as a fiddler).

The Odes show Dubourg to be an accomplished and charming composer and give us a tantalising indication of the qualities of the State Musick band. The composer’s close association with Handel is apparent in his style (perhaps we can even sense Handel leaning over his shoulder?) but there is enough galant-style individually to set Dubourg apart from his friend. Particularly touching is his tongue-in-cheek reference to his fellow State musicians in the aria, ‘But oh! What Skill what master Hand, Shall govern or constrain the wanton Band?’

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With only a few days left before the concert, it is all go behind the scenes, but I cannot wait to reintroduce this music to an Irish audience and to finally reunite it with its original location, adding an extra sensory dimension to our collective understanding of Dublin Castle and Georgian Ireland.

Mr Handel’s Adventures in Ireland, Kilkenny Arts Festival, 13, 14, 15 August - details here.

*Sorry, we couldn't help ourselves.