The first Messiah from Scratch

1 July 2024

The first Messiah from Scratch burst upon an anticipatory public on 5 December 1974. Earlier in the year, Don Monro and David Burgess, two scientists working at Imperial College London, had an idea over lunch. Wouldn’t it be fun to hire the Royal Albert Hall and put on an unrehearsed performance of Handel’s Messiah?

Whacky ideas don’t come much whackier. It was doubtless an exceedingly good lunch because the pair walked straight across the road to the Hall, talked their way into the Lettings Office, and booked the date there and then. Don’s wife, Ann, recalls that Don was often coming up with novel ideas so she did not take this latest one too seriously. Shortly afterwards, the two scientists realised that they would take quite a financial hit if things went wrong. They recruited two more colleagues to the venture and called themselves ‘The Tuesday Partnership’. Planning began in earnest.

Posters appeared advertising ‘Messiah from Scratch: a performance for singers and players’, and leaflets were printed. Susan Burgess (David’s partner) remembers evenings spent leafleting the Proms queue over the summer. Interest began to build, especially when Don and David talked themselves into an interview on the BBC news programme ‘Nationwide’. The public responded enthusiastically, and the seats allocated to the singers sold out quickly.

This did not deter those intent on singing. ‘Sell me an audience ticket, and I’ll sing from there’ was the response, Susan Burgess recalls. She adds that, on the day, ‘people sang from various parts of the hall. There were even instrumentalists performing in the auditorium when the orchestra had sold out! This did cause a little consternation amongst the audience, some of whom had a singer or two adjacent to them. This, of course, detracted a little from the effect of the main choir. In subsequent performances matters were more strictly controlled, and tickets were officially designated either for singers, audience or orchestra.’

So here we are in 2024 celebrating the 50th anniversary. Sadly, none of the four founders is still alive, but in the weeks to come we will share memories from many who remember the first Messiah from Scratch.

Next in the series: Who were the founders?

The first Messiah from Scratch
The somewhat faded cover of the programme of the first Messiah from Scratch in 1974