Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Colin's Little Known Facts: Handel and Watts' Greatest Hit

If you were asked to name some high profile songwriting teams, you might come up with Gilbert and Sullivan, or Rodgers and Hammerstein (or maybe Rodgers and Hart), or very likely Lennon and McCartney. But you probably wouldn’t say Handel and Watts.

But this pair (not together, unfortunately) were responsible for “Joy to the World”, one of the happiest and indeed most magnificent songs of the Christmas period.

Isaac Watts was one of England’s greatest hymnwriters. One of his songs was the Easter hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, revolutionary in that it was the first hymn to use the personal pronoun “I”.

Another of his songs was “O God Our Help in Ages Past”. In Southampton, where he was born, the clock on the Town Hall plays the first few notes of “O God Our Help in Ages Past” on the hour. They are very proud of Isaac in Southampton, and rightly so.

When he was 15 years old, Isaac criticised the congregation at his father’s church, saying that they did not put heart and soul into their singing. His father challenged him to come up with words that would enthuse them – so he did.

Isaac Watts is one of the many people of religious significance who are buried at Bunhill Fields in London.

George Frederick Handel was one of the world’s outstanding composers, but I always feel a bit sorry for him.

In his native Germany, he had what might well be termed a bust-up with the Elector of Hanover, in effect a King. In a huff, he went to England, where he felt a composer would be more appreciated.

Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, Queen Anne died, and the Elector of Hanover became King George I of England. Handel had to write some pretty good music, like “The Water Music” and “The Fireworks Music”, to make up for his intemperate words to his new king.

One of Handel’s best known works, “The Messiah”, is often played at Christmas. He is believed to have written the music for this at Gopsall, a Leicestershire estate near Market Bosworth. His friend Charles Jennens, whose estate it was, provided the words.

It was Handel who wrote the stirring tune used for “Joy to the World”.

This and other stories behind everybody’s favourite Christmas carols feature in my talk “Ding Dong Merrily on High” which I give to groups.