Handel’s maggots – obsessions

On 19th September 1738, Jennens wrote to a friend

“Mr.Handel’s head is more full of maggots than ever”

Maggot 1: His newly discovered carillon – “with this Cyclopean instrument he designs to made poor Saul stark mad.”

Maggot 2: A bespoke organ, costing £500, designed so that he could direct the orchestra from it, ‘all the time with his back to the audience!’ (Not considered a bad idea now; but the cost in current money would be about £77,000). Jennens suggested he was ‘overstocked with money’ – a bit rich considering the cost of his own Leicestershire home.

Maggot 3: ‘A Hallelujah he has trumped up at the end of his oratorio since I went into the country’. Handel had refused to set the Hallelujah Jennens had put at the end of the opening scene, and thought Jennens’ ending not sufficiently grand. Fortunately for us Handel carried out precisely Jennens intentions regarding Hallelujahs.

Jennens concludes: “but it grows late and I must defer the rest till I write next, by which time, I doubt not, more new ones will breed in his brain.”


Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire

Charles Jennens converted the hall into a magnificent Georgian mansion, which cost him more than £100,000 (about £15,000,000 in today’s money).

Gopsall Hall

The house still stood in the 20th century, indeed the estate had a motor-racing circuit in the 1920s and ’30s. But by 1952 it was mostly demolished, and the current Gopsall Hall Farm stands on its site – not far from Twycross Zoo.


Charles Jennens

was born in Gopsall Hall in Leicestershire.

His great-grandfather was one of the great Birmingham ironmasters and lived at Aston Hall. So the family were immensely wealthy and Charles lived accordingly, with a second home in Bloomsbury.

Charles Jennens

He was a man of literary pretensions, bringing out his own edition of some of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which brought him scorn and ridicule from some quarters. But he was a very able amateur librettist, providing the libretti for Messiah and Belshazzar, as well as Saul.

Both Jennens and Handel were difficult men, apt to be high-handed. Handel could fairly massacre a libretto to suit his music; but Jennens would not countenance such treatment of his work (see maggot number 3 )


Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, but for his whole life, from the age of about three, he lived in or around London. Although he was very much involved with rural folk music, he saw himself as a city boy.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Vaughan Williamses were eminent lawyers, and his mother was sister of Charles Darwin, marrying into the Wedgwood family. Wealthy and cultured, they sent Ralph to Charterhouse, from whence he continued to Trinity College Cambridge via the Royal College of Music. Composing did not come easily to him, so he returned to the RCM to study with Parry, Wood and Stanford, and then went on to study with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. It was while he was studying with Ravel that he began composing the first of the Five Mystical Songs.

His slow-burn development delayed his arrival as the leading British composer of his generation. He was consciously an English composer with strong roots in English folk music. He was at pains never to be elitist, an ideal he shared with his friend Gustav Holst.

Gustav Holst
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Since the two composers shared so much, they had what they referred to as ‘field days’, which they put aside to criticise one another’s work. Vaughan Williams missed these dreadfully when Holst died in 1934.

Telemann 1681-1721

Georg Philip Telemann

was born in Magdeburg. Like his near contemporary Handel, his family actively discouraged him from making music and as a musician he was virtually self-taught.

G. F. Telemann

He was from a professional family, so he was sent to school; and it was at school his remarkable talent was recognised and he was given opportunities and support. From the age of 16 he made many visits to the courts of Hannover and Brunswick, and by this time he had learned to play the recorder, violin and keyboard instruments, plus the flute, oboe, chalumeau (an early form of the clarinet), viola da gamba, double bass and bass trombone. He would later add the cello to his list, but violin would be his 1st instrument.

Although when he was 20 he went to Leipzig to read Law, he quickly became embroiled in the music of the city, among other things getting commissions to write music for the two main churches. Four years later, after he had thoroughly made his mark in Leipzig , he was appointed Kapellmeister to Count Erdmann II of Promnitz in what is now Poland, and then went on to hold substantial posts in Eisenach and Frankfurt. But it was when he was 40 he landed a plum job in Hamburg where he remained (but for one hiccup) for his remaining 47 years.

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Telemann 1721-67

The plum job

His main positions were Kantor of the Johanneum Lateinschule and Musical Director of the five main churches of the city.

Hamburg Johanneum

He had been living in Hamburg for about 14 years when he wrote Allein Gott in die Höh sei Ehre , by which time he was securely embedded as a most prominent and influential figure in Hamburg society.


Gaensemarkt Theater

He was also director of the Gänsemarkt opera house, where he mounted performances of his own operas, and those of other composers, particularly Handel’s, to which he added some of his own numbers. He founded a collegium musicum in Hamburg, and also one in Leipzig. It was originally intended that the collegium would give one concert a week during the winter season, but the public demanded two. On top of this he published his own music, wrote poetry and was corresponding agent for the Eisenach court, collecting news from across northern Europe.

Apart from a natural workaholic tendency, some of his workload may have been driven by the need to service the massive gambling debts his 2nd wife incurred.

Telemann’s Allein Gott in die Hoeh sei Ehre

Telemann appears to have composed the cantata Allein Gott in die Höh sei Ehre (sung by the angels at Christ’s birth) in about 1735.

It was composed to be sung at Christmas in the principal Lutheran churches of Hamburg, one imagines with the congregation joining in, since it begins with the first verse of a popular German hymn (written by Nicolaus Decius and Martin Luther). It continues with a setting of verses on the significance of Christ’s birth. Who wrote these words is not clear but they could be by Telemann himself. The cantata concludes with a verse from another popular hymn.

Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols

Britten composed A Ceremony of Carols while crossing the North Atlantic in 1942 – in convoy HX183. He and his partner Peter Pears had been in North America since April 1939; but when America declared war after Pearl Harbor they felt they must leave for home, setting sail from New York in March 1942, in the Swedish merchant ship Axel Johnson, for the perilous return journey.

At that time the North Atlantic was being patrolled by German U-boats (3,500 allied merchant vessels were lost crossing the Atlantic). Because of this threat, merchant vessels sailed in convoy, escorted by warships.

So the Axel Johnson sailed first to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join its convoy. While waiting in Halifax, Britten found an anthology of medieval verse in a bookshop: The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. He set 5 of the poems, plus 2 extra, for boys’ voices and harp during the Atlantic Crossing (two of the settings have surprisingly war-like overtones). These he later expanded to give us A Ceremony of Carols, which he completed in 1943.

The Atlantic crossing was calm and uneventful.