HANDEL'S HUMBLE LIBRETTIST

by Grant Dexter
Winnipeg Free Press, December, 1961

The Christmas season is the season for Handel's Messiah.

This was not always so. The Messiah was produced at Dublin in April, 1742. The second production was almost a year later at London.

But certainly for a hundred years The Messiah was an accepted part of the celebration of Christ's birth in the English-speaking world.

Much has been written of the music of this, the most popular and enduring of all oratorios. Handel, an Englishman by naturalization, has been acclaimed for The Messiah by the great masters as well as by the millions who find in his music the perfect medium for devotion.

But this article is not concerned with Handel. The Messiah was the work of two men of towering genius. One, Handel, is honored by us all. The other, Dr. Pooley, of Gopsall, Leicestershire, is scarcely known. Most reference works ignore the point. The Oxford Companion to Music is silent. Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians has but a passing reference to him. Only a few scholars, like the late George Sampson, author of the Cambridge History of English Literature, are more knowledgeable and kindlier.

The Man commonly supposed to have made the selection of passages from the Old and New Testaments … which inspired Handel to write the music … was Charles Jennens, also of Gopsall. Jennens was a wealthy, overbearing, arrogant, undesirable person. In literary matters, as Sampson points out, Jennens was "shallow and showy." Believing himself greater than Shakespeare he re-wrote and published three of the plays-a classic display of vanity.

None such could have produced the "book" that is The Messiah.

No, the true partner, although Handel never knew it, was Dr. Pooley, chaplain and secretary to the wealthy Jennens -- a deeply devout, able, but poor, self-effacing, humble clergyman. Jennens falsely claimed the credit. Pooley was content with the result.

Few read the text of The Messiah as literature and therefore few realize how close this narrative of Christ's birth and life comes to the great mystery of religion. Few trace the passages back to their sources and discover how widely Pooley ranged in his selection.

Here is the text with the source of each passage:

There it is as Handel received it from Dr. Pooley.

And yet there may have been changes. The passage from the 68th psalm on "the company of the preachers" is not, like the rest, taken from the King James version. Perhaps Handel made this alteration to suit his music.

Hebrew scholars point out that the opening chords, leading to the tenor aria, "Comfort Ye," are an exact reproduction of the rhythm if the passage is recited in Hebrew. Yet Handel, as far as is known, knew nothing of Hebrew.

Again, the Deity never speaks in The Messiah as he does in the Bach Passions. It is not "Come unto Me" but "Come unto Him."

But there is no wish to discuss individual numbers. There were two aspects to the England of the eighteenth century. It was the age of elegance and affectation. It was, as well, the age of devotion -- of the Wesleys, of Whitefield and of the great hymn-writers. The Messiah is the pinnacle of eighteenth century devotion and it has held its place over the centuries. This Christmas season, like all before it, The Messiah will be heard all over the English-speaking world.

George Sampson has a final word: "There is one" (song) "that stands above all, so great an affirmation that they put the first words of it on Handel's monument in the Abbey. What those mysterious sentences from the Book of Job literally mean, the agitated marginal notes of translators and commentators leave us in some doubt. They were written, perhaps, about the time at which Aeschylus was writing Prometheus. Prometheus had a saving secret; but so had Job, and it saved him. The secret of Prometheus does not concern us; the secret of Job concerns us deeply and Handel's musical genius makes it clear to us: it is Faith, the greatest of God's gifts to man, the one gift that not God himself could take away from Job -- Faith, which survives affliction and calamity, bodily torment and destruction, which annihilates the attorney's notion of evidence, which defeats the devil himself, and animates the soul of man forever. The words are old, but Handel has made of them one of the most divine songs of the eighteenth century: 'I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God'"


Shirley (Dann) Madany was Grant Dexter's private secretary until she married Bassam Madany in 1953. Gradually their life work developed into an Arabic radio ministry to North Africa and the Middle East, from 1958 to 1994. Grant Dexter never lost touch and in a letter written a few months before his death he said: "I wished to reply at length as I am just as keenly interested in you and yours as ever, but I find it hard to write. I can't see well enough to hit the proper keys on the typewriter or to write as legibly as in the old days. However, if anyone can read this writing, it will be you." In an earlier letter he said: "I note your sense of mission. You and Bassam must not set your sights too high. There are a lot of Muslims in your part of the world. They have been there quite a time and may persist for quite a time to come. Don't break your hearts trying too hard. Enjoy each other and the deep and lasting spiritual blessings of your home life. All our love, Grant"


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