Charles Jennens: The unsung hero of Handel’s Messiah

Robert Harris, The Globe and Mail

In this season of goodwill and compassion, spare a moment for the forgotten man of Christmas.

His name is Charles Jennens. You probably have never heard of him, but every Christmas, you probably listen to, if not sing, at least some of the words he crafted together.

Jennens is the man who assembled the texts for Handel’s Messiah. The very fact that we call it Handel’s Messiah demonstrates exactly how much we value Jennens’s contribution to the oratorio. Yet a compelling case can be made that it is Jennens’s compilation of biblical texts, most from the Old Testament, that is as responsible for Messiah’s enduring power as Handel’s music. A radical suggestion.

And I’d go even further, and say that it is the differing relationship to Jennens’s texts that truly distinguishes the three Messiahs we heard this season in Toronto – from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Soundstreams’s Electric Messiah.

The key to Messiah’s popularity, in an age when we’re afraid to wish people “Merry Christmas” but are happy to shout “Hallelujah, King of Kings and Lord of Lords” in a dozen sold-out Messiah performances every December, is that Messiah is not religious art, the way the Bach Passions are religious art. Messiah is religious propaganda, or at least it was for Jennens. He carefully assembled his biblical texts for Messiah to prove that Jesus’s life had been prophesied in the Old Testament (that’s why most of the texts are from that older volume) and thus it was not just convention or tradition that made Christianity vital – Christianity was an eternal truth.

Read the full article in The Globe and Mail.