Saturday 6 April 2013

Charles Jennens - the man behind Handel's Messiah

Handel House Museum, London: Handel's bedroom. © James Mortimer
George Frideric Handel lived at what is now 25 Brook Street from 1723 until his death in 1759. The house has been through many vicissitudes since, but has been open as London's Handel House Museum since 2001. Handel's house is displayed in 18th century style, with the interiors reconstructed and restored, portraits and period furniture, whilst the one next door which was lived in by Jimi Hendrix, is used as an exhibition space. I went along yesterday to catch the exhibition, Charles Jennens: the man behind Handel's Messiah before it closed on 14 April 2013.

The museum is somewhat quirky in that the ground floor is still used as a shop, so that visitors enter at the back in the basement, and then make their way up to the first and second floors where the museums are. You start on the second floor, which was Handel's bedroom floor. The rear of the house has been reconstructed, so that the closets are now rather bigger, on the second floor the room is used as an audio/visual room and I caught a bit of the video about Handel with a painter talking about her series of paintings based on Messiah, plus Christopher Hogwood and Charles Mackerras talking about Handel the man. Then into Handel's dressing room, entered from the door at the back, i.e. entering from his closet!

All the rooms in Handel's house (dressing room and bedroom on the 2nd floor, composition room and performance room on the 1st floor, plus the staircase) have had their 18th century panelling reconstructed or restored (in some cases using panelling salvaged from other houses). The major interior survival is the lovely staircase with its carved tread ends. All the walls of Handel's house are painted a gray colour, there are no carpets just the lovely wood floorboards (again all old wood, some salvaged). The dressing room and bedroom are furnished with a small selection of 18th century furniture, include a magnificent bed, but the main interest is in the walls where there is a fine collection of portraits of Handel's contemporaries.

Of course, it would not quite have looked like this in Handel's day as his collection of art was actually rather fine (including Rembrandt amongst the painters); the bedroom includes a landscape by Locatelli, the single testament to Handel's original collection. He probably had few pictures of contemporaries on his walls, but the display does enable us to see what all the people in Handel's life looked like. Downstairs on the first floor, you are struck by the smallness of the window in the composition room (the back room), it can never have been a light room and you would have to imagine Handel sitting at a table by the window writing, and probably using rather a lot of candles.

In the performance room, the main room on the first floor and the biggest room in the house, there is a reconstruction of a large Ruckers harpsichord which was being played, so that Handel's music echoed round the house. The pictures here were all rather large and mainly related to the exhibition about Jennens so that we had two portraits of the man himself, plus two of his house, Gopsall. It might be the largest room in the house, but it is by no means huge. Anyone who has attended a rehearsal in a house, can testify to how much room is really needed. When Handel held rehearsals here they must have been crowded, rather noisy affairs.

On the upper floor, the exhibition rooms were devoted to Jimi Hendrix as well as Handel, with a space for education and learning, including costumes to put on. There was also a highly illuminating video with harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham describing the two harpsichords in the house, including a wonderful explanation of how harpsichords actually work!

Charles Jennens - c1745 by Thomas Hudson
The exhibition about Jennens was very much a reading exhibition, with lots of fascinating information about the man. Great care had been taken to present the full breadth of his activities to us. Jennens was born into the gentry and inherited Gopsall Hall, which he transformed from a Jacobean Hall into a Palladian mansion, and he was heavily involved in the design and building. The music room included an organ (to Handel's specification) and music stands for 14 players are mentioned in accounts, so it must have been a substantial room. The house was pulled down in 1951, but even more tragically the collections were sold in the very early 1900's and the sale so badly catalogued that scholars have difficulty reconstructing the contents of Jennens's house.

He was a devout Christian, a Protestant evangelical, but he was also a non-Juror; he supported the Jacobites not the Hanoverians. By his refusing to swear the oath of allegiance to the King George, he prevented himself from taking public office, hence he had plenty of time for his other activities.

He was a great supporter of the arts, he subscribed to all of Handel's publications for 10 years before he send him a first oratorio text. He supported other musicians such as Boyce, Greene and Avison by subscribing to their publications as well. He also created a fine collection of Handel manuscripts, copied from Handel's originals as well as contemporary music from Italy. Left to his cousin Lord Aylesford, this was dispersed in sales in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but scholars have been able to reconstruct its contents and much is now in public collections.

The exhibition included a number of wonderful objects, testament to Jennens relationship with Handel. We have all read about Jennens' marginalia in his personal copy of Mainwaring's life of Handel, these are an important source of facts about Handel, but it was wonderful to actually see the copy complete with Jennens' furious scribblings. And Handel's letter of Jennens of 1744 thanking him for the Belshazzar libretto.

Jennens was probably Handel's best English language librettist, but he was an awkward person. He remained single all his life and was depressive. He had strong opinions, particularly about Messiah, and relations with Handel were not easy. Jennens created Messiah for evangelical purposes, the idea of promoting the gospel in the theatre to people who do not go to church. Handel's treatment of the libretto did not always meet Jennens approval, but their relationship continued and even when not writing text for Handel, the two remained friends. Another work that we saw testament of their collaboration was Saul complete with an original word-book and Handel's autograph, with Jennens' emendations!

The saddest episode in his life is perhaps his edition of Shakespeare. He planned to produce a learned edition in which the footnotes included all the variants, something which seems very modern and completely admirable to us. Unfortunately it was savaged by his contemporaries, notably the editor of a rival edition, George Steevens. Steevens was entirely unscrupulous and put about all sorts of  calumnies about Jennens, which until recently have been taken as fact. (Even sadder perhaps is the fact that Steevens collaborator was Samuel Johnson).

At the end of the exhibition there was a pair of objects which gave a hint a the luxuries in Jennens life, a pair of silver mugs with gilt interiors which are decorated with fleurs de lys, so that Jennens and his fellow non-Jurors could toast the King over the Water.

There is an admirable short book by Ruth Smith to go with the exhibition, which includes pictures of the exhibits along with a narrative of Jennens life. Essential reading for all those who love Handel. Smith's seminal book Handel's Oratorios and Eighteenth Century Thought is still available from Cambridge University Press but it does cost £60.

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