Charles Jennens: The Forgotten Behind the Unforgettable

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“Hallelujah! The Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” These triumphant words are used in the famous Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, that musical masterpiece that is traditionally performed at Christmas time.  Year after year people sing and listen to the timeless words of Handel’s Messiah and admire the composer’s genius in creating the magnificent music. However, many do not realize that the words of Messiah, the foundation on which Handel built his music, were not actually written or chosen by Handel. Behind his music lies the work of a man who is hardly remembered: Charles Jennens.

A Bit About the Man

Charles Jennens was born at the very beginning of the 1700’s into a world where Baroque music, written by great men like Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, was at its height.  A wealthy English bachelor, he used a lot of his money and time to explore the arts, particularly music. It is said that Jennens owned the first piano in England and by the end of his life he had a valuable collection of music including over three hundred of Handel’s manuscripts!

Besides music, Jennens was also interested in literature and architecture. He published editions of Shakespeare’s plays with footnotes and had a large collection of books. Known for his extravagance, he completely rebuilt Gospall Hall, his estate, in the Palladian style which was based on ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

Besides being passionate about the arts, Jennens was also a devout Anglican. His work shows that he had a wonderful grasp of biblical truth and that he knew his Bible really well.

His Work

In 1735, Jennens began to write librettos, (texts of operas and other long vocal works) and send them to Handel, in the hopes that Handel would put music to them. Handel did and Jennens became the librettist for several of Handel’s operas and oratorios including, of course, the Messiah.

The Messiah  is an oratorio, a long musical work written for orchestra and voices. Jennens used his deep biblical knowledge to find and put together verses from Scripture that tell the story of Christ in a powerful way. The Messiah is rich in theological truth  as well as promises that hold wonderful comfort and hope for Christians. Although the Messiah is about Jesus, Jennens chose most of the verses from the Old Testament, reminding us how relevant both Testaments are to Christians even in the modern period.

After the orchestral overture, the story begins with a single tenor voice singing, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned…” (Is. 40:1-3). Following about two hours of magnificent and moving music, the Messiah ends with a glorious choral piece in which the choir sings, “Worthy is the lamb that was slain!” (Rev 5:12)

It is said that one of Jennens’ main reasons for compiling the Messiah was to refute Deism, the idea that there is a God but that He has no interest in human lives. In contradiction to Deistic beliefs the Messiah tells the glorious story of God’s redemption plan to save His people from the darkness of sin.  If you haven’t listened to the Messiah I would highly recommend it. If you don’t like classical singing it would be worthwhile just to read through the texts that Jennens chose and arranged so carefully. (Click here to read it.)

His Glory

It seems sad that a man who was so instrumental in creating the masterpiece should get hardly any credit. He died in 1773 having left a lasting legacy and yet he was forgotten. We call the Messiah Handel’s Messiah giving the composer all the credit. However, all this probably would not trouble humble Charles Jennens. He did not write for money or glory, giving his librettos to Handel as a gift and leaving them anonymous.

Handel himself did not claim the credit for the Messiah. In a letter that he wrote to Jennens in 1742, he refers to the Messiah as ‘your (Jennens’) Messiah’. In one sense Handel was right in saying this for without Jennens’ work Handel’s music would have had little meaning. And yet, though Jennens had the knowledge and the passion to put together the words, the words themselves were not written by him. The words, the wonderful story, were written by the greatest Author of all. Perhaps this is why Jennens did not push for fame in his work. Perhaps he was content simply to see God glorified.

If you have a chance to listen to or read the Messiah this Christmas, remember the humble man who used his gifts to glorify his God, but don’t let his work be wasted by thinking only of him. Let the words fill you again, or perhaps for the first time, with wonder at the glorious majesty, love and mercy of Jesus Christ the Messiah.

Sources

Schoelcher, Victor The Life of Handel, London, 1857 (found on archive.org)

https://www.ludwig-van.com/toronto/2012/12/16/charles-jennens-the-unsung-inspiration-behind-george-frideric-handels-messiah/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkqRKZ-n5ng

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Jennens

What are your thoughts on this post? Have you ever listened to the Messiah? Have you heard of Charles Jennens? Leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you! 🙂

“Hallelujah! The Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” These triumphant words are used in the famous Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, that musical masterpiece that is traditionally performed at Christmas time.  Year after year people sing and listen to the timeless words of Handel’s Messiah and admire the composer’s genius in creating the magnificent music. However, many […]

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