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
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:
- Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to
Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished that her iniquity
is pardoned. Isaiah 40:1
- The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the
Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall
be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low, and the crooked straight
and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and
all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
Isaiah 40: 3-5
- Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will
shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake
all nations and the desire of all nations shall come. The Lord whom ye seek
shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant whom
ye delight in. Behold he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. Haggai 2:6-7
- But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth?
For he is like the refiner's fire, and he shall purify the sons of Levi that
they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Malachi 3:2
- Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name
Immanuel, God with us. Isaiah 7:14
- O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain.
O Thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength,
lift it up, be not afraid. Say unto the cities of Judah, behold your God.
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion. Isaiah 40:9
- Arise, shine, for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen
upon thee. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the
people, but the Lord shall arise upon thee and His glory shall be seen upon
thee, and the Gentiles shall come to thy light and kings to the brightness
of thy rising. Isaiah 60:1,2
- The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light and they that
dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
- For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government
shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor,
The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6
- There were shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flocks
by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of
the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel
said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy
which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of
David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:8-11
- And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host
praising God, and saying Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
good will toward men. Luke 2:13,14
- Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold,
thy King cometh unto thee. Zechariah 9:9
- He is the righteous Saviour, he shall speak peace unto the heathen. Zechariah
- Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf be
unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart and the tongue of the dumb
shall sing. Isaiah 35: 5,6
- He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with
his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are
with young. Isaiah 40:11
- Come unto him, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and He will give
you rest. Take his yoke upon you and learn of him; for he is meek and lowly
of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For his yoke is easy and
his burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30
- Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. John
- He was despised and rejected of men: a man of sorrows, and acquainted with
grief. Isaiah 53:3
- He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off
the hair; he hid not his face from shame and spitting. Isaiah 50:6
- Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; he was wounded
for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement
of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like
sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord
hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6
- All they that see him laugh him to scorn; they shoot out their lips and
shake their heads saying, he trusted in God that he would deliver him; let
him deliver him if he delight in him. Psalm 22:7-8
- Thy rebuke hath broken his heart, he is full of heaviness. He looked for
some to have pity on him but there was no man, neither found he any to comfort
him. Psalm 69:20
- Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow. Lamentations
- He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of
they people was he stricken. Isaiah 53:8
- But thou didst not leave his soul in hell; nor didst thou suffer thy Holy
One to see corruption. Psalm 16:10
- Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye left up ye everlasting doors,
and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong
and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and
be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors and the King of glory shall come in. Who
is this King of glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory. Psalm
- The Lord gave the word: great was the company of the preachers. Psalm
- How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and
bring glad tidings of good things. Isaiah 53:7
- Their sound is gone out into all lands and their words unto the ends of
the world. Romans 10:18
- Why do the nations so furiously rage together? Why do the people imagine
a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers take counsel together
against the Lord and against His anointed. Let us break their bands asunder,
and cast away their yokes from us. Psalm 2:1-3
- He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn, the Lord shall have
them in derision. Psalm 2:4
- Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces
like a potter's vessel. Psalm 2:9
- Hallelujah: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Revelation 19:6
- The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his
Christ. And he shall reign for ever and ever. Revelation 11:15
- 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. Job 19:25-26
- For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For
as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. I Corinthians
- Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep but we shall all be
changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. The trumpet
shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall all be
changed. For this corruption must put on incorruption, and this mortal must
put on immortality. I Corinthians 15:51-53
- Worthy is the lamb that was slain and hath redeemed us to God by his blood,
to receive power and riches, and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and
blessing. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon
the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. Amen, amen. Revelations
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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