More on Handel's Messiah and Anti-Semitism

In an earlier post, I noted this article in the New York Times on Easter Sunday that the Hallelujah Chorus” celebrates the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The article was by Swarthmore professor Michael Marissen. I expressed some scepticism.

My scepticism seems well warranted. Michael Linton, chairman of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University, offers a persuasive (if somewhat overheated) rebuttal in this essay on the First Things blog:

Marissen is making a career of arguing for the extra-musical purposes of eighteenth-century works. In his dissertation (published as The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos), he argues that Bach, in his concertos, encrypts Lutheran messages of the eventual reversal of political subservience in the afterlife (we may be prince or peasant here, but in heaven we’re all equal). Although controversial (one reviewer called his readings stimulating but irritating; I simply think they’re fevered), Marissen’s analysis has found enthusiasts among the postmodern types, and he has gone on to write about anti-Judaism in the St. John Passion (he acquits Bach of the charge) as well as to edit several volumes on Bach. The Times apparently tapped Marissen for the Easter essay because of his imminent work on Handel’s Messiah and “Christian triumphalism.”

Undoubtedly Marissen will expand his argument about the “Hallelujah Chorus” in his new book, but in the newspaper version it goes something like this: Charles Jennens, who cobbled together the oratorio’s libretto, intended the work as an anti-deist and anti-Jewish polemic. In the oratorio’s second section, Jennens substituted “nations” for “heathens” in Psalm 2:1, so as to include the Jews among those who “imagine a vain thing” by taking counsel “against the Lord and his anointed.” Thus the arrival of the “Hallelujah Chorus” that closes the section is, in fact, an “over the top” celebration of God’s judgment on the Jews—Handel’s addition of martial trumpets and drums underscoring the militaristic vision of divine pillage.

Marissen argues that here Jennens follows a tradition going back to Richard Kidder (d. 1703), the bishop of Bath and Wells, and continued by sermons John Newton published on “the Celebrated Oratorio of Handel” in 1786. The relation between these texts and the destruction of Jerusalem was so traditional in Handel’s time that it was “surely how listeners would have understood the combination of these texts in eighteenth-century Britain.”

Surely? Not even a scholarly circumspect “arguably”? Does Marissen really expect us to believe that what immediately came to the minds of nearly everyone who heard the “Hallelujah Chorus” under Handel’s direction was the Lord’s vengeful destruction of Jerusalem?

Surely not. What did come to mind, and what Handel wanted to come to mind, was the immensely popular music he wrote for the coronation of George II in 1727 (repeated at the coronation at every British monarch since). “Zadok the Priest,” in its D major key, diatonic construction, choral outbursts, and orchestration is the model for the “Hallelujah Chorus,” written fifteen years later. What Handel’s listeners heard in the Messiah chorus wasn’t a conquest anthem but music celebrating the coronation of Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, music directly reminiscent of the music they already knew celebrating the coronation of George, “by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc.”

Ah, that “Defender of the Faith” business. The Protestant Faith, of course. It’s hardly news that the English saw themselves as Israel’s heirs. They were a new chosen people whose election had been confirmed by the “holy wind” that sank the Spanish Armada and the much more recent defeat of the Catholic-backed Scots at the 1746 Battle of Culloden (an event which Handel celebrated with his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus). English Protestants were the new Israelites (look at all those “Salems” they founded in North America).

They were Christians who believed that the Old Testament could only be understood properly when read through the saving work of Christ—and Christians who believed that those who didn’t read the Old Testament that way were endangering their immortal souls with hellfire. (It’s not particularly insightful to notice that this caused tension among the church, the synagogue, and the chattering philosophers.)
Marissen’s is a very odd article. The most important aspect of the “Hallelujah Chorus” that one might think a scholar would want modern listeners to know about to help them understand the piece is ignored while a controversial interpretation of pretty-well-known truisms is headlined. What gives?

Read it all.


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