14 January 2013

Handel House Museum Blog - January 2013

Charles Jennens: the man behind Handel’s Messiah

The Messiah is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest pieces of music of all time, but little is known of its inception. An exhibition at Handel House aims to shed light on Handel’s friend and collaborator Charles Jennens who came up with the subject and libretto which inspired him to write this extraordinary work in just 24 days.

Charles Jennens (1700-1773) was a wealthy landowner, devout Protestant and musical innovator with an addiction to Handel’s music. He compiled an unrivalled collection of every note that Handel wrote and became a loyal friend of the composer. He was a private man with no profession but was an immensely generous supporter of charities and the arts. He inherited his father’s 736-acre estate of Gopsall in Leicestershire and transformed the Jacobean Gopsall Hall, filling it with one of the largest picture collections in the country, as well as an immense library, containing many Shakespeare texts.

Handel held Jennens’ creativity in high regard, respected his opinion and used several of his suggestions in his most celebrated pieces of work. As a result, Jennens became Handel’s best English librettist, producing the texts for such mould-breaking works as Saul and Belshazzar. His influence on Handel is unquestionable but his work was always anonymous, never credited and he remains largely unknown, even by classical music scholars.

But Jennens’ work with Handel is just one of his unsung achievements. He was also the first person to publish Shakespeare’s plays in single volumes, producing the first modern editions of King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Julius Caesar between 1770 and 1774. At the time of publication, Jennens came under vicious attack from influential rival George Steevens, whose profound jealousy was legendary and whose connections (which included Samuel Johnson) helped perpetuate the allegations he spread. Steevens, who was known to alter Shakespeare’s text in his own editions to throw suspicion on the work of others, made attacks on Jennens’ personality and work which persist to this day until now.


Charles Jennens: the man behind Handel’s Messiah

21 November 2012 – 14 April 2013

For more information please visit www.handelhouse.org  

Image: portrait of Charles Jennens (© The Handel House Trust Ltd)