No. This isn’t really a trick question. Or one of those silly ones you play on kids like “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?”
But there is a wonderful bit of forgotten history in the answer.
Without Handel’s Messiah we would not know who Charles Jennens was. And without Charles Jennens we would not have Handel’s Messiah. You see, it was Jennens who put together the text upon which the music is based.
Charles Jennens (1700-1773) was a wealthy English landowner, an amateur musician and an avid supporter of the arts. In fact when he was 70 years old he began an arduous task of writing extensive critical editions of Shakespeare’s plays complete with editorial footnotes. This type of annotated edition had never been done before with Shakespeare. He completed five of them before he died.
But it was his friendship with George Handel where Jennens made his mark. He helped fund nearly every one of Handel’s compositions (operas and oratorios) beginning in 1725 until Handel’s death in 1759. Their friendship is well documented through their letters and it is known that Handel visited Jennens’ estate many times. In the video below Jennens is described as a “Handel nut.” He owned the largest single collection of the works of Handel in the world.
One thing Jennens liked to do was create liberettos to be later set to music. The definition of a libretto is “the text or words of an opera or similar extended musical composition.” In other words, he wrote lyrics and asked Handel to write the music. The first one he did with Handel was the oratorio Saul first performed in 1735 to great success.
This led to other collaborations but none as famous as Messiah. Apparently Jennens’ libretto had been in Handel’s possession for a few years but other projects, including another collaboration with Jennens took precedence. But in 1741 Jennens would convince Handel to begin work on this special libretto. In July of that year Jennens wrote to a friend saying,
“Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, and perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week.
I hope he will lay out his whole genius and skill upon it, that the composition may excel all his former compositions, as the subject excels every other subject. The subject is Messiah.”
The next month George Handel began writing the music for the oratorio in what has been described as a “white heat.” The first 100 pages were done in six days and the complete oratorio (250+ pages) in only 23 days. He then set about preparing it to be debuted in Dublin, Ireland in April 1742.
Some may argue that Charles Jennens didn’t really write anything because the entire text is from scripture, so he technically wasn’t the “author.” But he did arrange the various texts in the order we now hear them performed. He drew from the King James Bible and also from the Book of Common Prayer for the text. This is not a light task nor one to be summarily dismissed as uncreative. In fact he pulled verses from 14 different books of the Bible, as diverse as Job and Revelation. Forty-three verses from the Old Testament and thirty from the New Testament. Technically you could say that Jennens compiled and Handel composed.
To top it off Jennens gave his work to Handel freely without compensation and desired anonymity…that the author of the libretto be anonymous in all of their collaborations.
This story made me think of all writers. Those who toil at their craft with a passion and a calling. Some become well known and get their name on the cover of a bestselling book. And there are others who toil just as hard but their success is in their support for other writers. It is known that Jennens influenced Handel’s compositions through his critical listening. In fact after the initial performance of Messiah Handel wrote to Jennens to ask “Be pleased to point out those passages in Messiah which you require altering.”
Do you have a Jennens in your life? Or are you a Jennens to another great artist?
This Christmas season consider sending a hand-written word (the personal touch) of encouragement to a writer you enjoy reading or to a writer friend who is on your mind. Or an editor or even an agent (?!). Tell them something that encourages them to work with even greater excellence. (see Isaiah 55:11)
Below is a quick five minute piece about Charles Jennens from the Handel House Museum: