First, the essentials: Georg Friederich Handel was born in Halle-on-Saal, Saxony, in 1685, distinguished himself as an organist and composer at an early age; a sojourn in Italy taught him to write Italian operas; he returned to Hanover in 1710 to be Kapellmeister to Georg Ludwig, the Elector of Hanover (later King George I of England). Handel then visited England, initially to compose an opera, and, except for a brief return trip in 1711, remained in England– over the objections of his boss the Elector, until the latter became King!– for the remainder of his life. (One reason I have previously characterized Handel as one of the greatest survivors ever!)
Fast forward, more than a quarter century, to 1737: Handel had become a great impressario, setting London abuzz with his Italian operas, for which he obtained acclaimed soloists from the Continent. But his ship was now sinking, both because of competition from another opera company, and because of The Beggar’s Opera (1728), by John Gay, a satire– in English, rather than Italian– of all that had become fashionable in London opera. (The English still love satire– and do it very well!) While Handel struggled to try to regain his glory, economic necessity drove him to try some other avenues. In preceding years, he had tried some works which were oratorio-like: Alexander’s Feast, and Esther, among them. The pressure was great, and Handel suffered an apparent stroke– but survived, again!– and returned to try something along the same line. Enter a rather odd character: Charles Jennens, 15 years younger than Handel, the bachelor son of a wealthy family with an estate at Gopsall, Leicestershire, on the banks of the Ashby-de-la-Zouche canal. Jennens was a foppish, self-important individual, educated at Oxford, who dabbled in theology (he was an anti-Deist, i.e., disparaged a rational basis for belief), and collected opera scores, Shakespeare folios, and the like. He was also a supporter of the deposed Stuart royal family. (Behind his back, his neighbors called him “Suleyman the Magnificent”, comparing him with the extravagant 16th-century Ottoman ruler. Although extravagant himself, Jennens couldn’t attract a mate, much less a harem!) Jennens sent Handel librettos for a couple of Biblically-based oratorios. Handel, mindful that Esther had been relatively successful, took the proffered gifts, which became Saul and Israel in Egypt. “Both works”, says H.C. Robbins Landon, “are great milestones in the history of music”. Although the modest successes of these 1739 oratorios did not convince Handel to abandon opera– he tried again in 1740 and 1741, both efforts yielding flops– it did give him another string to his bow, and the partnership with Jennens continued for three more oratorios.
The next addition resulted from an invitation to Handel from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Cavendish. For that projected visit, Handel composed two more oratorios– Messiah, and Samson (Samson, however, was not immediately produced in Ireland). Messiah used a libretto by Jennens, based on the King James Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Handel composed Messiah in 23 days, beginning in August 1741, and it premiered in Dublin in April 1742, where it was impressively successful. Handel wrote Jennens a thank-you: “The Politeness of this generous Nation cannot be unknown to You”, he said of his Irish hosts. Jennens was not all that pleased– indeed, he had argued, and continued to argue, with Handel over the treatments of some subjects. In a letter to a friend, Jennens wrote: “I shall show you a collection I gave Handel, called Messiah, which I value highly, and he has made a fine entertainment out of it, though not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition.” Handel, however, now confident that he had a working vehicle, took Messiah on the road, to London– where, on March 23, 1743, it failed. At least part of its failure resulted from clerical opposition to hearing Scripture– remember that this was the first such epic in England to use New Testament material– sung by persons of questionable sexual mores, for such was the reputation (correct or incorrect) of the female soloists in that performance. More to the point, however, the Dublin performance receipts had been donated to three Irish charities (despite Handel’s own tenuous financial situation), and when Handel revived Messiah in 1750 to support London’s Foundling Hospital, the work instantly became much more popular. As it has continued ever since: It is certainly the most popular oratorio today in the number of its US performances, and is very popular in Europe as well, although one or two others– notably Israel in Egypt, and perhaps Judas Maccabeus – may compete in that venue. This is the seventh Messiah in the Naperville Chorus’ 35-year history.
As for Jennens, he wrote two more librettos for Handel– L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato (based on two poems by Milton), and Belshazzar, which was not produced until 1745. Jennens died at Gopshall in 1770, alone on his estate, eleven years after Handel’s death.
J. R. Fancher