On the evening of 1 April 1747, people who were wealthy enough to buy tickets, and could send servants in advance to save the unreserved seats for them, felt their way in flickering candlelight to their places for the first performance of Judas Maccabaeus by Handel. Six years previously the composer's oratorio Messiah had taken audiences by storm in the same London theatre, the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, now Drury Lane.
Who knows whether the noisy throng anticipated such a roller-coaster ride of emotions from this story of the Jewish people's uprising against their Syrian conquerors? With the energy and pace of a Spielberg film today, Dr Thomas Morell's libretto takes the people of Judah from the depths of despair, fear of persecution and the horrors of war to the joy of victory and the return of peace in their land. Handel chose this subject for his composition to celebrate the victory of the Duke of Cumberland over Bonnie Prince Charlie at the bloody Battle of Culloden in 1746; his dedication of the piece to the Duke compares him to the oratorio's eponymous "truly Wise, Valiant, and Virtuous Commander".
Three hundred years later we have better lighting and the tickets are relatively less expensive than audiences were used to in eighteenth-century London. But we are aiming to recreate as closely as possible the thrill felt by that first audience of Judas Maccabaeus, with period instruments, professional soloists and a choir that particularly enjoys singing Handel. If you love listening to his work but want a change from Messiah at Christmas, this is the concert for you.
Cathal Garvey conducts Newbury Choral Society and Southern Sinfonia Baroque.