Still More on Handel's Messiah

I have already made two posts (here and here) on the New York Times article by Michael Marissen, a professor of music at Swarthmore College,which argued that Handel's "Messiah," and the "Hallelujah" chorus in particular, rejoices in the misfortune of Judaism in the Destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD.

The New York Times has now printed (on the web only) the response of two experts who do not agree with Marissen: Wendy Heller (Associate Professor of Music, Princeton University), addressing the musical aspects of the argument, and Ruth Smith (of Cambridge University), addressing the theological aspects.

Here are highlights from Heller:

Was there anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in 18th-century England? Were there many 18th-century English theologians who rejoiced in the downfall of the Jews? Were biblical commentaries published during Handel's lifetime that understood Psalm 2 (and other Old Testament writings) as referring to the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70? Of course.

But it is another matter entirely to contend, as Michael Marissen has done in The New York Times and in a recent conference at Princeton University, that Handel's "Messiah" was designed to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and that the music of this iconic masterpiece "makes its own contribution to the troubling theological message."

There is insufficient space here to address all the theological issues Mr. Marissen has raised, or the strategies he claims Handel used to underline an implicit anti-Judaic message in "Messiah." Briefly, these claims run contrary to everything we know about Handel's aesthetic and his very approach to composing music.

Read it all. She gives a detailed analysis of several of the music arguments made by Marissen.

Here is what Smith had to say:

Michael Marissen has in effect restated that Handel's "Messiah" is a Christian missionary work, which promulgates Christian doctrine and asserts that Christianity is the only true, authoritative faith. Anyone who reads the libretto will surely agree that this is self-evident. It is also unsurprising. The librettist, Charles Jennens, is known to have been a devout, evangelizing Christian. Orthodox believers of any religion think that theirs is the one true faith, by implication if not explicitly repudiating unbelief and other faiths. In these respects and others, "Messiah," as I showed in my book "Handel's Oratorios and 18th-Century Thought" (1995), is a work of its time.

The new emphasis in Mr. Marissen's reading of "Messiah" is the suggestion that repudiation of, and hostility toward, Judaism is prominent; indeed, is the shaping intention.

This cannot be shown from the ostensible meaning of the actual verbal text of "Messiah," which does not mention Jews (other than the "sons of Levi," who are to be purified and make an offering to God in righteousness). Nor does it fit with anything we know about the authors. Neither Jennens nor Handel left any anti-Judaic remark. On the contrary. When Jennens complained to his friend Edward Holdsworth that Handel had not done justice to all the texts of "Messiah," Holdsworth replied: "I am sorry to hear yr. friend Handel is such a Jew. I hope the words, tho' murther'd, are still to be seen."

Jennens replied: '"You do him too much Honour to call him a Jew! A Jew would have paid more respect to the Prophets.'"

Handel is recorded by John Hawkins, in his "General History of the Science and Practice of Music," as appreciating the religious tolerance allowed by the British constitution. And we have no testimony from either Handel or Jennens of what "Messiah" was theologically "designed" to do.

Mr. Marissen's appeal is principally to two near-contemporary sources. Jennens's and Handel's relation to these works is conjectural.

Read it all. Like Heller, Smith offers a detailed response, focusing on the alleged anti-Semitic sources used by Handel.

All three experts (Marissen, Heller and Smith) recently debated these issues at a forum at Princeton. The New York Times described the forum in this article.


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