Charles Jennens: The man behind Handel's
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
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.