Because thou didst send thy beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life;that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.
Preface for the Sundays in Advent
The Book of Common Prayer
Episcopal Church – 2007
In modern terms it would be possible to think of Charles Jennens as a Handel “groupie”; he was a great admirer, and eventually close friend of and collaborator with the composer. Jennens (right in a portrait by Thomas Hudson)was a rich landowner whose refusal to swear allegiance to the new Hanover monarchy barred him from holding public office but instead allowed him to devote himself to his love of the arts. Each season he made the journey to London to hear Handel’s latest offerings and had copies made for himself of every note that Handel ever wrote. In late 1738 he presented the composer with the libretto for an oratorio, Handel was turning to the form as opera was proofing less popular and hugely less profitable. In January 1739, Handel produced Saul, to Jennens’ uncredited libretto, with great success and set the pattern of his work over the next period of composition.
Though Jennens was a fervent admirer of the composer their collaboration was not without tension and on more than one occasion they fought over dramatic and musical content. Most often the librettist won and in several letters to friends often referred to Handel’s “maggots” – ridiculous ideas that invested his mind.
Later that year, writing to James Harris about their plan to compile a libretto for Handel based on Milton’s poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, Jennens commented:
I have been preparing a collection for him from Scripture, which is more to my own tast & (by his own confession) to his too; but I believe he will not set it this year, being anxious to please the Town with something of a gayer turn.
Of course that collection was Messiah. But as Jennens noted Handel was occupied with other things and did not begin composing the piece until August of 1741. It is said that he composed the score in only three weeks in a fit of “divine inspiration” and though that would be nice to believe speed was generally a trademark of much of his composition. Handel was not even sure of when, where, for whom or even by whom the work would be performed. Unusually for him the score was for only strings, trumpets and drums with organ continuo with none of the woodwind writing that he often employed. The solos were written for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Though we take the SATB combination as normal today it was the first time Handel had used that configuration. It was almost as if that Dublin Messiah was a tryout for Messiahs to come. Handel himself made ten known revised versions and many others after him were to change that original manuscript to suit the circumstances and taste of the times.
And even those first performances in Dublin did not follow Handel’s original scoring. He capitalized on the presence of Mrs Susannah Cibber, the greatest actress of her time and a contralto of some accomplishment and a person much in the news at the time because of her scandalous divorce, and assigned a major aria in each part to her. He transposed two of the pieces including the final aria (always given to the major soloist) to suit her range. The other alto solos were shared out to Joseph Ward and William Lamb who were alto soloists with the cathedral choirs that made up the chorus.
(Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign;) Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!
The two Dublin performances (13 April and 3 June, 1742) were a great success; even with ladies being request to forego hoops to their dresses and gentlemen swords to allow for more people crowds were turned away. The Bishop of Dublin remarked that even “great numbers” of what he called the “young and gay” listened with serious attention. However when the piece was performed at Covent Garden the following year the reaction was less than favourable. The London papers voiced strong objections to the utterance of the Word of God in a place associated with actors, low comedy and immoral plays. Handel is reported to have suffered a major nervous collapse and he was not aided by Jennens’s very outspoken and well-publicized criticisms of Messiah. On seeing and hearing the score for the first time, Jennens felt that Handel had not always done justice to himself as a composer or to the divine truths of the Word of God. The two men, equally strong-willed and stubborn, had a major break. As in the past it was Handel who made the first move to reconciliation and his letter (left) testifies to his respect for Jennens as a librettist and as a musician: “Be pleased to point out those passages in the Messiah which You think require altering.”