Which came first the chicken or the egg is a common rhetorical question.
I propose that the same is true for the librettist versus the composer.
Nevertheless both components are equally important and necessary. And so, as I delve deeply into Handel's Messiah for the next six weeks, I dont want to overlook the vital contribution of Charles Jennens.
From the G. F. Handel.org website:
The libretto for Messiah was designed and selected from the New and Old Testaments with utmost care by Charles Jennens (1700-73), a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare's plays who was educated at Balliol College, Oxford. However, despite his merit and ability, Jennens never gained his Degree or much recognition from society because he was a non-juror, refusing to acknowledge the Hanoverian dynasty as legitimate heirs to the throne of England. Yet Jennens could not be a Jacobite (i.e. a supporter of the deposed Catholic Stuarts) either because he was staunchly Protestant. Such figures are often forgotten by the over-simplification of history, but Jennens' upper-middle class background enabled him to live in some comfort at a fine house in Gospall, Leicestershire, and devote his time to artistic pursuits in the absence of a prominent public life.
This fascinating background on Mr. Jennens substantiates the importance of support personnel. I can so relate :)
But today I want to focus on the power of words. Mr. Jennens took Scripture and rearranged the words without changing the meaning. Just reading the text of the score is powerful. Hearing them sung is spiritually moving.
From Chapter Three of Richard Luckett's Handel's Messiah: A Celebration:
The text of Messiah is profoundly religious. (Whether the same can be said of what Handel made of it is another matter.) It will command the assent
of many (but not all) Christians; it requires the suspension of disbelief in
non-Christians. pg 77
How can one sit through a performance of Messiah and not be encouraged to know God?
Also, from Luckett:
Early word-books of Messiah are today extremely rare; issued roughly stitched in sugar-paper wrappers, they were both fragile and, evidently, intently read.
The words were seriously pondered by Messiah's early audiences at least, a fact voluminously attested to by the Reverend John Newton, who in 1784 and 1785, preached no fewer than fifty sermons on the subject. pg 80
I'm reading through the text before the performance I'm attending on December 5th purely for the purpose of being able to understand the words being sung by the chorus. I do this also when I attend a play, especially Shakespeare. I dont know if it's my aging hearing or what, but it greatly enhances my ability to understand, if I know AHEAD OF TIME what is being spoken.
Do you have a favorite text from Messiah?
Portrait of Charles Jennens is by Mason Chamberlin the elder