engraving of Susanna Cibber

In November 1741, Handel, at the invitation of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, left London for
Dublin, where his music was extremely popular. With him he took some of his most successful
compositions: Acis and Galatea, Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, L’Allegro, Esther, Alexander’s Feast, and
Saul. He also took with him a new composition which he’d completed earlier in the autumn:
Messiah. He arrived in Dublin on the 18th of November and stayed for ten months putting on
many concerts, mostly for charitable purposes. While he was happy to let his old colleague,
violinist Matthew Dubourg, recruit the instrumentalists that he needed for his performances,
Handel preferred to be directly involved in choosing his singers. His new oratorio needed a
performer of great warmth and charisma and to Handel’s good fortune, Susanna Cibber arrived in
Dublin only a few weeks after he did. The 27 year old actress, sister of the composer Thomas
Arne and daughter in law of playwright, theatre manager, and poet laureate Colley Cibber, had
performed in two of Handel’s earlier oratorios (Deborah and Saul) and he had been very taken
with her. He knew that her abilities as an expressive and affecting singer were exactly what he
needed for his new oratorio.
Susanna’s professional career began in 1732 and she quickly became popular as a singer as well
as an actress. In 1734 she married Theophilus Cibber, Colley Cibber’s son, which proved to be
beneficial to her career and position in London Theatre. However, the marriage was not a happy
one: despite a prenuptial agreement which protected her property and income, her husband as
manager was able to draw Susanna’s earnings directly from the theatre and was even selling her
clothes and personal items to make money. In 1738 they were involved in a notorious lawsuit in
which details of Cibber’s collusion in Susanna’s adultery became very public. He had persuaded
Susanna to enter into an arrangement with John Sloper, a country squire: the three set up house
together in Kensington with Sloper paying rent and maintenance until Cibber escaped to France
to avoid his creditors. While there, Susanna wrote to him to say that she was leaving him for
Sloper. On returning to England he successfully abducted Susanna from Sloper’s country house
and she had to be rescued by her brothers. Cibber attempted to sue Sloper for £5000 damages
for ‘criminal conversation’ but the details of the financial arrangement came to light and Cibber
was awarded only £10. The scandal was devastating for Susanna who by this time had a
daughter with Sloper. She took a step back from performing until she too was persuaded to travel
to Dublin to perform at the theatre in Aungier Street in the late autumn of 1741.
The premier of Messiah took place on the 13th of April 1742 at the Musick Hall in Fishamble
Street. Huge crowds were anticipated: ladies were urged to come without hoops and gentlemen
without swords. The rehearsals had generated great excitement and the premiere was
enthusiastically received as ‘sublime, grand and tender’
According to legend, Susanna Cibber received a very special tribute. After she had sung “He was
despised’ the longest aria in the whole work, combining sorrow, desolation, guilt and even rage,
the Rev Dr Delany, Chancellor of St Patrick’s Cathedral, leapt to his feet, crying, “Woman, for this
be all thy sins forgiven thee!’
Susanna returned to London and sung in performances of Messiah there in 1743. Handel held
her in such high regard, particularly for her power to communicate sorrow, he included parts for
her in three of his oratorios which followed: Samson, Belshazzar and Hercules. Unfortunately she
was unable to perform in the latter two owing to illness and never worked with Handel again. By
1747 she was working permanently as an actress with David Garrick in Drury Lane.
Susanna died in 1766 and was buried in the north cloisters of Westminster Abbey. On the day of
her death, Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres closed their doors as a tribute to one of their
finest actresses and singers.