Reassuring 18th Century Protestants: The librettist’s intended message for Handel’s Messiah by Arthur Holroyd (1957)

Reassuring 18th Century Protestants book cover
Reassuring 18th Century Protestants book cover

A recently opened music hall in Dublin was the venue for the first performance of Handel’s Messiah, which took place on 13 April 1742. We know that Handel, at the age of 56, had composed the score within an intense spell of creative activity during August and September the previous year. But Handel did not compile the text that he set to music. The assembling of verses from the Bible that formed the libretto had been undertaken by a country squire called Charles Jennens, who was fifteen years younger than Handel. This study explores the libretto within its early 18th century context, examining the librettist’s motivation for the task and his choice of texts. With the help of publications available during his lifetime, written by 150 mostly Protestant apologists, a concerted attempt is made to identify the meaning(s) that would have been attached to each verse by both the librettist and his contemporary audience. It was an age when the world was believed to have been created within a period of six days some 4,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ – just one of many examples of an understanding· of the Bible that differs from that today for the Christian believer. An awareness of the libretto’s intended meaning adds to our enjoyment of Messiah, whether as performer or listener.

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