Handel’s Messiah is arguably the most-beloved English language choral composition, and the “arguably” tends to dropped in the Christmas and Easter seasons. Even those who have not managed to attend a performance of the entire two-and-a-half hour long piece can immediately recognize its brilliant “Hallelujah Chorus”. The oratorio, and especially the chorus, manages to invoke a wellspring of emotions: Awe, joy, humility, a hatred for the Jewish people and a delight at their misfortune…
What, you didn’t pick up that last part? Clearly, you need to read the religion section of The Huffington Post more often.
Most historians of music have understood the lyrics of Messiah, arranged from Biblical passages by librettist Charles Jennens, to be an evangelical work. Jennens wrote with the specific purpose of countering the Deists of the day, celebrating the miraculous birth and Resurrection of Jesus, and showing how the Old Testament points to Jesus as the Messiah. Handel’s Messiah, unsurprisingly, is about the Messiah.
But according to a Huffington Post blogger, Handel’s Messiah is really an anti-Semitic piece about “anti-Jewish Christian triumphalism.” Professor of music Michael Marissen summarizes the meaning of one aria thusly: “Says God to the Lord Jesus Christ: “In purifying the Sons of Levi, beginning with the destruction of the Temple, you will break the people of Israel, the Jews who do not accept you as my messiah, with an iron rod, and also the heathen; you will dash them in pieces like earthenware.”
It would be sad enough if this was some one-off, poorly considered piece. But apparently Marissen has written an entire 232-page book dedicated to the notion that Handel’s Messiah is anti-Jewish. That in turn stemmed from a 2007 New York Times op-ed where he made the same argument. Before that he had written a book on the works of Bach that concluded that they were, get this, anti-Jewish.
The bulk of the “evidence” of Marissen’s claim is circumstantial. It appears that Jennens owned an anti-Deist book with many anti-Semitic elements, and that many of the verses used in the Messiah also appear in the book. Add some basic misunderstanding of Christian theology, and voila, anti-Semitism.
There’s no need for me to go into details of why Marissen’s claim is absurd. Three excellent rebuttals can be found here, here, and here. It’s more worth noting that the New York Times followed up on the op-ed by attending a panel with Marissen and two of the world’s foremost Handel experts. Based on their report, the experts, and most of the audience, basically tore him to shreds. It’s possible his arguments have improved since then, but I doubt it.
I, for one, know what song I’ll be listening to this Easter Sunday. An excellent rendition of the piece may be found below. (To the musically-illiterate, feel free to skip to 1:51:22 for that one part you know).