Is Handel's Messiah Anti-Semitic?

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The outcry in some quarters last year over the centennial celebrations of Richard Wagner’s birth will 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 rather 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 place within the work. It is preceded by the bass aria "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?" – a setting of Psalm 2 that matches vigorously bowing strings to nations and kings that "furiously rage together."

Here is 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. Modern 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 adding emphasis: telegraphing these sources through the dramatic medium of the oratorio.

Specifically, Jennens used a translation of Psalm 2:1 employing the term "nations" instead of "heathen." The latter would have been more accepted and also implicated the Romans for Christ's death; the former had a specifically Judaic implication. 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. Some contemporary performers have bristled at these suggestions. 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 by 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 fairly 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."