• I’m Sorry, but Who? The Other Guy Behind Handel’s ‘Messiah’

    Surge Summary: Most people are familiar with Handel’s Messiah – but George Frideric Handel wasn’t the only one involved in that production. The individual who supplied its text was Charles Jennens — and he did so in order to put the words of the Bible to music and refute a growing, anti-biblical heresy of his day.

    Over at breakpoint.org, Eric Metaxas/Roberto Rivera pass along:

    “In the orchestra world, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is every bit an annual Christmas tradition as eggnog and overworked shopping mall Santas.”

    Messiah, as is well known, is Handel’s magnum opus, considered by some one of the “supreme wonders of human genius”. Keep in mind, though, this masterwork isn’t only the result one man.

    We’re so used to calling the work “Handel’s Messiah” that we fail to notice that he only wrote the music. And as good as the music is, what’s being said, or in this case, sung, is every bit as inspired and inspiring.

    The text, or “libretto,” as it is properly called, was written by Charles Jennens. Chances are you’ve never heard of him. You’re not alone. Even in his lifetime Jennens was “utterly unknown” to most of his contemporaries.

    But obviously not to Handel, who, in a letter to Jennens, referred to their collaboration as “your Messiah.” As the director of the Handel House said a few years ago, “Without Jennens there would be no Messiah.”

    Probably a good idea, then, to find out a bit about this Jennens fellow: An English landowner and patron of the arts, he wasn’t content to only a support the arts as an observer:

    He collaborated with Handel on other works such as “Saul,” “Israel in Egypt,” and “Belshazzar.” As with “Messiah,” his contributions were anonymous.

    Anonymous? Remarkable. Nearly unheard of throughout history, and perhaps, especially, today, what with our “Walk of Fame” and selfie-consciousness.

    As these titles suggest, Jennens’s specialty was librettos based on biblical subjects. This was the direct result of his devout Christian faith. And that brings me back to “Messiah.” Jennens was concerned with the emergence of Deism within the Church of England. Deism rejected the idea of God’s intervention in human affairs and, with it, the inspiration of Scripture.

    His response to the threat was what he called a “scripture collection” that demonstrated that the Scriptures had predicted the coming of the Messiah, which he desired Handel to set to music. Unlike his other “scripture collections,” every word in the Messiah’s libretto is taken directly from Scripture. As Albert Mohler wrote a few years ago, “Jennens understood the Bible to reveal a comprehensive and unitary story of God’s salvation of his people.”

    The librettist wanted to remind the word God was very much involved in history. He was a Creator in control of His Creation; a God Who is able. Jennens nurtured a high view of God and a high view of the Scriptures.

    Jennens understood, however, a pamphlet alone wasn’t competent to combat infernal Deism. He had to touch people viscerally, emotionally. He had to reach their imaginations, as well as their intellect.

    Man is a tri-partite being: body, soul and spirit. For human beings to be effected the way God intends, every part of their humanness needs to be involved. Art, of course, is the ticket for that task and the writer would have grasped that.

    Thankfully, he knew just the right man to undertake the challenge. In July 1741, he wrote 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 . . . 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.”

    Handel began work on Messiah’s musical score a month later. It was finished in a mere twenty-four days. At manuscript’s end he scratched the initials “SDG,” Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone be (the) Glory.” (His contemporary and fellow composer Johann Sebastian Bach made a habit of the same practice for his religious works.)

    Since its first performance in Dublin in 1742, Jennens’ exercise in what can accurately be called Scriptural apologetics has become the most beloved choral work in history. No one knows how many times it has been performed. Counting the recordings alone is exhausting.

    “Apologetic” means not an “apology” for belief in God, but a defense of religious faith. Messiah, it turns out, was crafted primarily to play that role – and it famously has, for centuries.

    And every time we listen, we are told “For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” And that, as Mohler reminds us, was what Jennens wanted us to understand: God has spoken.

    God is real and wants to be involved with us. He’s concerned not just with the vastness of His creation, but with individuals, as well. For instance, note: He found a way for the “anonymous” lyricist of Messiah to come to light and receive the credit which is his due.

    H/T: Breakpoint.org/Eric Metaxas/Roberto Rivera

    The views here are those of the author and not necessarily Daily Surge. 

    Image: Charles Jennens; Adapted from: uploaded by Jack Wills It at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by SreeBot., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16723766

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