Charles Jennens, librettist

Charles Jennens was an English landowner and arts supporter. A friend of George Frideric Handel’s, he helped author the libretti of several Handel oratorios, including the much-loved Messiah.

A libretto (Italian for “booklet”) is the text used in, or intended for, an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata or musical. The term libretto is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as the Mass, requiem and sacred cantata, or the story line of a ballet. 

Born in 1700, Jennens was brought up in Leicestershire at Gospall Hall. He was a devout Christian, and supported the legitimacy of the Stuart line.  He was considered melancholic and extravagant,  and his neighbours called him Suleyman the Magnificent.

Due to his support of the Stuarts he was unable to hold any public appointments, so Jennens turned his attention to the arts instead. He was a collector of art with one of the finest collections in England (at the time), and a devoted patron of music.

Through his love of Handel’s compositions, Jennens and Handel became friends. Jennens even commissioned Tomas Hudson to paint a portrait of Handel.

Jennens used his knowledge of the Bible, and other literary interests to prepare or contribute to libretti for Handel. This work was done for free, and it was always published anonymously. He annotated his copies of Handel’s operas, adding corrections, bass figures, rejected pieces, and dates. It is also clear that on occasions Handel was prepared to accept Jennens’ suggestions and improvements to his compositions.

Some attribute Messiah’s emphasis on the Old Testament – and choice of the Old Testament title “Messiah” – to Jennens’ theological beliefs. Jennens was less than wholly approving of the musical setting, writing to Edward Holdsworth:

“I shall show you a collection I gave Handel, called Messiah, which I value highly. He has made a fine entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition; but he retained his overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah.”

In the early 1770s Jennens commenced the preparation of scrupulous critical editions of Shakespeare plays, and the first time that these had been published individually and with editorial footnotes. He completed King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar before his death.

He died on 20 November 1773. His memorial lies in Nether Whitacre Parish Church and was sculpted by Richard Hayward who also provided sculptures both in his London home at Great Ormond Street and at his country seat of Gopsall Park.

After his death, Jennens’ second cousin Heneage Finch, 3rd Earl of Aylesford, inherited his music library. Much of it is now preserved in the Henry Watson Music Library at Manchester Central Library. It contains a large collection of manuscripts and published music by Handel and other contemporary composers, both English and Italian; there are 368 volumes of Handel manuscripts, and others include the autograph of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Manchester” violin sonatas and an early manuscript of The Four Seasons. Jennens’ extensive collection of books by William Shakespeare, on literature, philology and theology was largely dispersed in a sale in 1918.

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