Is Handel's Messiah Anti-Semitic?

Friday, April 18, 2014 - 12:00 AM

The outcry in some quarters last year over the centennial celebrations of Richard Wagner’s birth may have surprised no one who is familiar with the German composer’s biography. His polemical views on Jews, regardless of how they informed his operas, remain for many hard to stomach. But fewer music lovers would think that Handel’s Messiah – with its great, life-affirming choruses and arias – could be similarly problematic.

The music historian Michael Marissen has been building a case that Handel’s oratorio has a distinct anti-Jewish strain. He prominently – and provocatively – argued this point in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that ran on Easter Day 2007. The article prompted a minor uproar, mostly from the piece's admirers but also from a few Handel scholars and performers, who took issue with points in his analysis.

Marissen, who is a professor at Swarthmore College, didn't back down from his thesis but has expanded it with Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World’s Most Beloved Choral Work, published on Tuesday by Yale University Press.

Marissen's argument centers on Messiah’s most recognizable theme, the Hallelujah chorus, which he contends was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. This meaning is determined mostly by its context in the work. It is preceded by the bass aria "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?" a setting of Psalm 2 that matches furiously bowing strings to nations and kings that "furiously rage together."

Here's where the devil is in the details, says Marissen. Handel's librettist was Charles Jennens, a prominent preacher who assembled verses drawn from both Old and New Testament sources in a collage-like fashion. Jennens was also closely familiar with various anti-Semitic screeds by such contemporary theologians as Robert South, Isaac Barrow and Richard Kidder. Scholars have long believed that Jennens only modified the wording of the Bible verses simply to make them more singable, but Marissen argues that he was also telegraphing these sources through the dramatic medium of the oratorio.

Specifically, Jennens used a translation of Psalm 2:1 featuring the term "nations" instead of "heathen," which would have been more accepted and which also implicated the Romans for Christ's death. Handel then set the aria in a stile concitato (agitated style) to heighten its drama, and placed it immediately before the Hallelujah chorus.

When that famous chorus arrives, the juxtaposition sends a triumphal message. “The Hallelujah chorus in and of itself need not, of course, be taken to project Christian rejoicing, even in part, against Judaism,” Marissen writes. But when concertgoers heard the entire sequence – the agitated aria about warring nations followed by a triumphal chorus with trumpets and drums – it was understood "to predict, in part, God’s destruction of Jerusalem and its temple because of Jewish failure to accept Jesus as God’s messiah."

A Close Reading

Just how much the alleged anti-Semitic meanings were perceived by audiences at Messiah's premiere is a larger question, which Marissen touches on briefly. Kent Tritle, the director of cathedral music at the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, notes that he has greatly admired Marissen’s previous scholarship on uncovering the problematic subtexts in Bach’s St. John Passion, for example. But Tritle, who is also host of The Choral Mix on WQXR, is less convinced about his Messiah thesis.

“The idea that Handel Hallelujah was somehow linked with a celebration of the destruction of Jerusalem is ridiculous,” Tritle wrote in an e-mail. “I don't think a German writing in England (maybe Ireland a little) was thinking in those terms. I'm not saying that anti-Semitism wasn't a problem, just that I really don't think this was Handel's intent."

Ultimately, the question boils down to changing perceptions. In Handel's London (or Dublin, where the oratorio premiered) most concertgoers would have had a deep knowledge of the biblical scriptures in the piece. More to the point, Christians at the time were all but unanimous in believing that the violence depicted in Psalm 2 prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple – a passage that carries far less baggage today. 

But as Marissen prefaces in his opening chapter, "Briefly, Why I Love Handel," there is an "agonizing" paradox at the core of his argument: “The magnificent joy of Handel’s music is not merely at odds with the anti-Judaic message in Messiah; it is at the very same time a scandalous affirmation of that message," he writes. "Can such life-enhancing music possibly also be invested with life-defeating hatred? It appears that it can."

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Comments [23]

Smitty from Bed Stuy

If I were around for the first performance of this Oratorio and saw the composer, I would say to him; "Peace Brother."
All they that see him laugh him to scorn; they shoot out their lips and shake their heads, saying....
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn: the Lord shall have them in derision....
Thou Shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel....
Hallelujah,....

Apr. 23 2014 04:51 PM
GerardM from New Jersey

In the 4/12/14 issue of the Jewish Daily Forward there is a very good scholarly article by Benjamin Ivry that argues effectively that Handel was not seen by Jews in his day, or since, as having written music tainted with anti-Semitism. To emphasize the point there is a wonderful photograph leading the article that features Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz and others joining together for the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus. The question he asks is were they "mistaken" to which he answers apparently "no". Freud also offers some insight in his famous observation, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar".

Apr. 21 2014 05:13 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

Happy Easter to everyone! Just a comment about "weak and helpless women" in opera: While the 'mores' (not MOREYS,SARAH FROM PHILLY) of their times led composers and librettists to feature weak and helpless women (thereby giving them so much to sing about), it is good to note that Verdi ended his career with the Merry Wives of Windsor,which certainly proved that he understood who was really in charge, as did Shakespeare. It's just that most men were really, really afraid to say it out loud.

Apr. 20 2014 05:27 PM
Bruno Manuel Albano

Most unlikely. Handel was furious, angry at bad quality and prima-donna singers but never a anti-semite. He was born as a luteran, worked with catholic themes (even with future popes) and sincere with anglican songs. All his Bible works are full of sincerity and devote spirit, he had a pratical side for faith issues, all this less than a century after the Thirty-Year war ravaged his homeland.

Apr. 20 2014 05:14 PM
George Jochnowitz from New York

When I was 14, I started attending concerts with a high school friend. We went to a performance of Handel's Messiah at Carnegie Hall, and I fell in love with the music. I bought the records and listened frequently.
As the years went by, I noticed bit by bit that many of the words were read in shul as part of haftarot, generally between Tish`a Be'Av and Rosh Ha-Shana. They were by Isaiah.
Among the sections of Messiah that I loved was "O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion. Get the up unto the high mountain. O Thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem ...."
Once on a bus to Jerusalem I saw an exit marked "Mevaseret Tsion" (Good tidings to Zion). There was a road from the exit leading up unto the high mountain. A bit later, there was an exit marked "Mevaseret Yerushalaim" (Good tidings to Jerusalem). It was thrilling to see that there were towns that bore the names of words from Handel's Messiah and that Handel had gotten from Isaiah.

Apr. 20 2014 03:12 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Buona Pasqua Carol and everyone.

Apr. 20 2014 02:42 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

To Concetta, DD, Gev, and everyone: Happy Easter, and keep enjoying the music!

Apr. 20 2014 12:15 PM
CONCETTA NARDONE from Nassau

I think Wagner portrayed women as heroic and Puccini's Tosca is heroic.
But folks, just enjoy the music.

Apr. 20 2014 07:23 AM

@SARAH: Ouch. Please STOP SCREAMING!!! I guess some of what you SCREAMED made sense -- I couldn't be bothered with reading all of it.

Apr. 20 2014 12:54 AM
SARAH from PHILLY

WELL . . . . JUDAISM ITSELF IS MISOGYNISTIC

(1) WOMAN HAVEN'T SOULS
(2) WOMAN ARE LEGALLY CHATEL (LIKE COWS AND DOGS ARE CHATEL)
(3) WOMEN'S MENSTRUAL BLOOD IS EVIL AND EVEN DANGEROUS
(4) IF A HUSBAND GOES BANKRUPT HE SERVES 7 YEARS AS A SLAVE TO HIS CREDITOR WHILE HIS WIFE BECOMES THE PROPERTY OF HIS CREDITOR.
(5) WOMEN WEREN'T ALLOWED IN TEMPLES

EXCEPT, I BELIEVE VERDI, ALL THE REST OF GRAND OPERA'S LIBRETTOS WOMEN ARE PORTRAYED AS WEAK, HELPLESS , JEZEBELS AND FINALLY ALWAYS VICTIMIZED BY MEN--PERHAPS WHY ONLY A FEW WOMEN AREN'T BIG FANS OF GRAND OPERA.

AND WHERE ARE BLACKS? IN THE OLD TESTAMENT POOR OLE BALTHAZAR IS MIS-PORTRAYED AS BEING AFRICAN WHEN HE WAS AN ARAB--ABOUT THE SAME SKIN COLOR AS A PERSIAN. I DO BELIEVE THERE ARE NO PEOPLE OF COLOR IN THE NEW AND OLD TESTAMENT THAT ARE PEOPLE OF COLOR AND VERY FEW WOMEN OF INTELLIGENCE, BRAVERY AND INTEGRITY.

SO . . . . SHOULD WE RE-INVENT THE PAST? SHOULD WE SANITIZE IT? OR SHOULD WE DESTROY IT AND START SAY THE YEAR 2015 AS YEAR 1?

MISOGYNY AND RACISM ARE APPARENT IN OPERA BECAUSE THERE ARE ACTORS. BUT IN GENERAL JUST LIKE SUNG ROCK LYRICS MOST "CLASSICAL" MUSIC LYRICS ARE EITHER IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE OR CAN'T BE UNDERSTOOD WHEN SUNG.

SO . . . . I WOULD SUGGEST TO PEOPLE HIGHLY SENSITIVE TO THIS DILEMN TO:

(1) DON'T WATCH OPERA PERFORMANCES, JUST, LISTEN TO RECORDINGS
(2) WATCH BAROQUE OPERA
(3) DON'T READ THE LIBERTTO OR READ THE WORDS PROJECTED ABOVE A PERFORMANCE.

JUST SIT BACK AND ENJOY THE MUSIC. AND THINK THE MOST LIKELY IF HANDEL WERE ALIVE TODAY HE PROBABLY WOULDN'T BE AN ANTI-SEMITE BECAUSE THE CATHOLIC CHURCH RIGHTED AN ECCLESIASTICAL WRONG IN THE 1960s. HANDEL ET AL, JUST REFLECTED THE KNOWLEDGE AND MOREYS OF THEIR TIMES.

AND STOP BEING SO SELF-RIGHTEOUS CHILDREN ARE DISCRIMINATED AS RUTHLESSLY TO DAY AS THEY HAVE EVER BEEN. AND THERE IS STILL INFIBULATION AND WOMEN IN THE COUNTRY DON'T HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS UNDER THE LAW OR EQUAL FINANCIAL OPPORTUINITY. SO TAKE CARE OF THE BUSINESS AT HAND AND LET HANDEL REST IN PEACE.

Apr. 19 2014 11:21 PM
Bruce from chicago

Seems the supposed scholar has made a mountain out of a very small piece of matzah.

Apr. 19 2014 10:13 PM
Gev Sweeney from The Jersey Shore

Handel anti-Judaic???? This is the man who wrote Israel in Egypt ... Solomon ... Samson ... Seems to me the good prof's thesis is arbitrary.

Apr. 19 2014 07:20 PM
Paul Padillo from Portland, ME

What a poor, overindulgent argument. Additionally, "Hallelujah" does not come directly after "Why do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?" as Mr. Marissen asserts. There is another chorus ("Let us break their bonds assunder"), a tenor recitative, a tenor aria THEN "Hallelujah." Perhaps he limited himself to a an album of Messiah highlights whilst conducting his flawed research.

Apr. 19 2014 04:23 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Corrected my spelling, it is IDEOLOGUE and not idealogue. See I do not know everything even if I act like I do.

Apr. 19 2014 02:54 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

QXR is part of NPR and they are a bunch of leftie idealogues(?) I only contribute to QXR and have pointed out that none of my contribution is to go to NPR. Do not know if my wishes are being followed. We do know what a bunch of liars idealogues, right and left, can be.
Yeah, QXR keeps thrashing Wagner and have now found another target.

Apr. 19 2014 02:51 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Do we have to look for anti-Semitism everywhere? This is a great piece of
music. Enjoy it and stop looking for monsters everywhere. I do not see too much mention of the anti Catholic sentiments all over the media. By the way, a lot of the great pieces of music we enjoy were written by Catholics.

Apr. 19 2014 11:54 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

After reading this piece, I guess I'll have to be mindful when teaching "Hot Cross Buns" to my 4th grade band students who do not celebrate Easter.

Apr. 19 2014 08:05 AM
David from Flushing

Just a comment on your chorus recording: In the days of Handel, the good people of London were likely still "rhotic," that is, they pronounced their final "R"s with a good growl. Today, we are more likely to hear an "ah" sound in London, New York, and New England. The Delaware Valley dialect found around Philadelphia may reflect the older pronunciations better than the UK itself. I imagine that choirmasters would be very displeased with "foreverrrr and everrrrr."

Apr. 18 2014 05:33 PM
David from Flushing

Handel wrote of his oratorio Theodora, "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one." That suggests to me that his frequent use of Jewish heroes created a following for his works in that community. Why would he go out of his way to offend them? Perhaps the "bible code" should be applied to the libretto of Messiah to search for dark revelations.

Apr. 18 2014 03:46 PM
patrick from Long Island

To my mind, if you are so pointedly anti-semitic as to enshrine it in music, why draw from the Old Testament? And, how anti-semitic is 'Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned"?

Apr. 18 2014 03:21 PM
Bernie from UWS

I think he raises a convincing point. Just because you enjoy a piece doesn't mean it can't have a checkered past. And I'll trust a scholar who's studied Handel's source material for what is probably years of his life. Too many people have knee-jerk responses to these things sometimes.

Apr. 18 2014 12:55 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

I agree with Kent Tritle - this is ridiculous. It really takes quite a stretch of the imagination to find anti-Semitism in the Hallelujah Chorus! Did WQXR get tired of trashing Wagner, so now they have to trash Handel? And why choose the sacred Passover/Easter season to bring up this subject?

Apr. 18 2014 10:57 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

Marissen's contention has been dismissed and discredited since 2007,most notably by a panel discussion that year,which was able to refute many of the assertions made by Marissen.Nietzsche praised Handel's "Judeo-heroic trait."There are legitimate examples of Anti-Semitism in classical music,but this would not appear to be one of them.

Apr. 18 2014 02:01 AM

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