Messiah: some words about the words

Ever since its first performance at Easter time 1742, in Dublin, Messiah has been loved, and it is undoubtedly the best-known and most-performed choral work in the English language repertoire. Handel deservedly gets most of the praise, but the words also play a role in Messiah’s popularity, so in this post we’ve taken a look at the text of Messiah and the man behind it, Charles Jennens.

The power and beauty of Messiah come not only from Handel’s music, but also from the words, a thoughtful selection of texts from the Old Testament prophecies, the Psalms, the Gospels, St Paul and Revelation. Like the Lutheran Biblical language of Bach’s Passions, the English of the King James Bible is deeply embedded in our language and culture, and in Messiah, even more than in Bach’s Passions, and certainly far more than in Handel’s other oratorios, the lovely poetry of the King James Bible comes to us almost completely untouched, bar a few little practical tweaks.

This text for Messiah was crafted by Charles Jennens, a country gentleman whose wealth gave him the luxury of being able to be grumpy and eccentric. He devoted a lot of time to theological and literary study, and his pastimes included editing Shakespeare, beautifying his house in Leicestershire in the latest Palladian style and preparing libretti for his good friend Handel. Before Messiah, Handel had already composed two other works with texts supplied by Jennens – Saul and L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, which was based on Milton. The fate of the Messiah libretto initially caused Jennens some concern though:

Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah…

However persuasive Jennens tried to be, Handel the businessman never wrote anything without a particular performance in mind – Saul had lain untouched for three years – but happily for Handel, Jennens and the rest of us, the Messiah text was followed a few weeks later, in August 1741, by an invitation to Handel from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland inviting him to participate in a series of charitable concerts in Dublin the following Easter, and he got straight to work.

The three sections of Jennens’s text are not a straightforward dramatic narrative, but a meditation on Christ’s life and purpose – words from the opening prayer of that other great pillar of Anglican Christmas, King’s College’s Nine Lessons and Carols come to mind: “the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child”. Part One begins with God’s promise of the Messiah in the Old Testament Prophecies up to Christ’s birth, and if you step into any Anglican church in the run-up to Christmas, the chances are you’ll hear a Bible reading with a bit of Messiah text in it, the best known probably being the passage from Isaiah that forms the third of the Nine Lessons and Carols readings: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light …. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given”.

Part Two moves onto Christ’s ministry on earth, and particularly the human sinfulness and weakness that contrasted with Jesus’s message and which led to his death. The Passions stop there, and most other Easter music concentrates on Lent and Good Friday, but Jennens goes on, leading us gently through the Resurrection and the promises of redemption for everyone. Jennens drew his Biblical texts for Part Three from those used in the Book of Common Prayer for the burial of the dead, words which would have undoubtedly been very well known to most of the original audiences of Messiah and which still resonate today.

Although we can trace the thread of prophecy, Christmas, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection through the text, Jennens steers clear of directly depicting any of the story, and Christ remains firmly offstage: even the most obviously narrative part of Messiah, the scene showing the angels visiting the shepherds, is still only a secondhand story. This may have been because of religious sensibilities about Christ being depicted on a secular stage – unlike the German Passions, which were written for church, Messiah was always intended for the concert hall. What Jennens achieves though is something that feels very English: a slightly distant, oblique approach that allows us to tiptoe around the story and come to it in our own private way without the awkwardness of having to share it with anyone else. When we sing or listen to Messiah, we don’t have to become the murderous crowd crucifying Christ, or the disciples confronting their desperate sadness; the text allows us to explore these things in our own way if we want to, but if we don’t want to, we can step away and just enjoy the magnificent combination of words and music offered to us by Handel and Jennens.