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Words for Handel

28 March 2013

David Martin reads of the author behind his best-known oratorio

Gentleman scholar: a portrait of Jennens (1740s?) by Thomas Hudson 

Gentleman scholar: a portrait of Jennens (1740s?) by Thomas Hudson 

Charles Jennens: The man behind Handel's "Messiah"
Ruth Smith
Handel House Trust £8.50

THE Handel revival of the past decades - with the restoration of his reputation as one of the greatest opera-composers, and performances of his music far beyond the borders of the Reformation - has included a new understanding of the cultural context of his work, led by, among others, Ruth Smith, in her remarkable 1995 study Handel's Oratorios and Eighteenth Century Thought. Her monograph on Charles Jennens, the author of the texts of Messiah, Saul, and Belshazzar, and maybe of Israel in Egypt, as well as Il Moderato, the concluding part of L'Allegro ed Il Penseroso, was written to accompany an exhibition (closing 14 April) about Jennens at the Handel House, and gives us fresh insight into an important and maligned figure.

Among much other rich illustration, the statue by Roubiliac Religion or Christian Faith, commissioned by Jennens for Gopsall, his magnificent Palladian house, tells us much about him. He was, at considerable personal cost, a Nonjuror, committed to the truths of Christianity and the prophecies, in a time of mounting scepticism. He was also a scholar who produced early variorum editions of Shakespeare, a bibliophile, and preserver of Handel's works, and (like Handel himself) a generous philanthropist. He was a neurotic who tended his friendships with Ciceronian care, and worked with "brother Handelians" to bring out the best in his brilliant but wayward friend.

Saul and Belshazzar were both serious dramatic creations containing political messages about virtuous kingship as well as religious messages. Messiah, like Israel in Egypt, was conceived as an Easter oratorio, and sought to remind sceptical society during Lent, in vivid scenes and striking images, of the story of redemption. John Osborne claimed that Handel gave the English their religion: Ruth Smith's scholarly work exposes the rock from which Messiah was hewn. 

The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, and Hon. Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster.

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