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:
Thanks for sharing this inspiring story. You’ve challenged me to contact writers who have inspired me over the years.
It’s always a delight to stop by your blog. I hope you and your staff have a great Christmas season.
Handel’s “Messiah” has long been a favorite of mine. The entire work has the signature of The Holy Spirit all through it.
I love The MESSIAH! This is wonderful information about a beloved oratorio. I’ve sung it with a choir several times and will sing the Hallelujah Chorus again this Sunday as part of our Christmas concert.
Many authors have touched my life and inspired me in a special way and your idea to let them know has inspired me to do just that.
Kathy Tyers Gillin
This is seriously cool, Steve. As many times as I’ve played in a Messiah orchestra, I never knew this about the libretto.
How interesting! I love historical tidbits like this. I had no idea it was written by someone other than Handel.
I guess whether I am a Handel or a Jennens is yet to be seen. 🙂 I feel more like a Jennens at this point.
Thanks for sharing!
The answer to who really wrote Handel’s Messiah seems clear to me: God, both words and music. As a musician, I believe that the composition of 100 pages in 6 days seems as miraculous as Aaron’s staff budding, blossoming, and producing almonds overnight in Numbers 17:8. The potential is there under ordinary circumstances, but such rapid progression to completion – that only seems possible through the direct action of God.
While it is considered anathema to claim “God wrote this” with respect to our own work, I am sure we have all experienced the amazing phenomenon of waking up with a scene defined in great detail, including dialog, that is not at all what we were planning but is exactly what was needed. There is nothing more exhilarating than being in the zone where you feel like God is directing you, whether it is in the important decisions and events of real life or even the fictitious lives of the characters living in the parallel universes we create. Those 23 days in Handel’s life must have been sheer ecstasy for him. I can imagine how much pleasure he later derived from seeing how this wonderful gift from God lifted the spirits of the many who heard it toward God. My own heart soars every time I hear the beginning strains and the first hallelujah.
Wonderful piece, Steve! I have been a Jennens to another and felt overjoyed knowing that he could execute the story and take it to a deeper level than I could. It was quite a process getting me to that point, but God was in the journey every step of the way and when I finally handed it over, peace and comfort overwhelmed me and it was so obviously God’s path for that particular piece.
As for your advice on sending a handwritten ‘thank you’ note to someone in our writing circle, I’ve done it the past few years around Thanksgiving and feel so blessed and happy as I write it! It’s definitely one of those times where I feel so grateful to give 🙂
So interesting! Thanks for sharing that. Now I want to listen to the whole Messiah. 🙂
What an interesting piece of history behind the music. I never knew this.
Thanks for the thoughtful post, Steve. How remarkable that Jennens didn’t want fame for himself and was able to provide a sounding board for Handel’s creativity. Just as a jeweler selects valuable gems for a crown, they set gems of scripture to gloriously appropriate music, and the cumulative effect still radiates light today. May our humble efforts do likewise.
Thanks, too, for your gentle admonition to encourage one another.
I am reading this in 2018 because I forgot who wrote that beautiful music and looked it up.Thanks you for relating this interesting information. I am absolutely carried away by the emotions the listening creates in me.
Ive listened to the Messiah over the past forty years and tonight, as a yearly tradition, I will be attending a performance at my church. After reading the history behind this great masterpiece, I will appreciate even more the lyrics as well as the music. Hard to imagine this has inspired millions over the past 270 years and contunes to be one of the most recognized oratorios ever written. Thanks so much for sharing.