With the holidays just around the corner, we put Gino Francesconi—director of the Carnegie Hall Archives and Rose Museum—on the spot by asking him to suggest just a single theme that captures the holiday season at the Hall throughout the 12 decades of its existence.
"Probably the longest tradition of celebrating the holidays at Carnegie Hall is with the great Handel's Messiah," Gino reflects. "It's been performed at Carnegie Hall about 350 times since our very first season. If you had to guess which piece of classical music has been performed at Carnegie Hall more than any other, you might think Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Or maybe the William Tell Overture. Wrong! It's Messiah. I often joke that if all of the recordings and all of the sheet music for Messiah just vaporized, you could corral all of the Carnegie Hall ushers and we could probably write out the entire work from memory!"
In fact, the first performance of any part of the iconic oratorio took place just seven months after the opening of the Hall when, on December 27, 1891, Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra and French soprano Emma Fursch-Madi in a performance of "I know that my Redeemer liveth" from Messiah during one of his Damrosch Sunday Concerts.
The first performance of the full Messiah at the Hall took place just two days later on December 29 when Damrosch—again—led the New York Symphony Orchestra and the Oratorio Society of New York in the first of three consecutive performances. Soloists that Tuesday afternoon included sopranos Clementine de Vere and Jennie Patrick Walker, contralto Marie Ritter-Goetze, tenor Italo Campanini, and bass Emil Fischer. Frank L. Sealy—a prominent New York organist at the turn of the century—is listed as the organist.
Programs from both concerts. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.
A trio of Messiah flyers from across the decades. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.