Correcting the ‘grossest faults’: Charles Jennens and the Composition of Handel’s Messiah

Burrows, Donald (2023). Correcting the ‘grossest faults’: Charles Jennens and the Composition of Handel’s Messiah. Music & Letters, 104(4) pp. 533–566.



The correspondence between Charles Jennens and Edward Holdsworth includes criticisms by Jennens, sometimes trenchant, of Handel’s setting of the text in Messiah. A fresh detailed examination of the musical sources, building on work previously presented in Music & Letters, has revealed more specific evidence for the substance of Jennens’s criticisms. Handel’s performing score of Messiah has a large number of alterations to the verbal text by Jennens, and further alterations are found in a manuscript score of the oratorio from his library. By putting together the musical and documentary evidence it is possible to assess when Jennens made these alterations, the effect that they may have had on Handel’s performances, and the extent to which Handel accepted or rejected his librettist’s suggestions or demands. These matters are particularly relevant to Handel’s first London performances of Messiah, in 1743 and 1745. Although most of the accessible evidence concerns the verbal text and its setting, the musical sources also provide a few clues to Jennens’s criticisms of the musical composition. The article presents comparative transcriptions of passages in ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ as found in Handel’s autograph, Jennens’s score, and Walsh’s editions, with interpretation of the differences in the light of Jennens’s comments. It also suggests that the ‘Aylesford’ copies of Messiah, taken together, reveal Jennens’s preferred scheme for the movements of the oratorio.

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