April 18, 2014

#Facepalm Friday: Handel’s Messiah Is Anti-Jewish, Apparently

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).

2 Responses to #Facepalm Friday: Handel’s Messiah Is Anti-Jewish, Apparently

  1. Dave Gingrich says:

    Marissen will fade away. The Messiah is probably the greatest piece of music ever written and will be sung perhaps for eternity.

  2. John Purdie says:

    To make a statement that Messiah by Handel, is anti Jewish…only the Huffington Post could make such a claim….is preposterous, impertinent, and grossly mis-interpreted..which to say.inaccurate…Scripture being quoted, regarding God’s dealings with the Jewish people…which were written by Jewish people….Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, king David, Moses, prophets, judges, Isaiah…to name only a few…God spoke through the prophets, to the Jewish people, requiring them to be obedient to Him, by keeping the Law, and trusting in Him for deliverance from their enemies…and if they did not obey God Himself would punish them, if they did not obey The Ten Commandments, which they chose not to do…being that the Jews, the Children of Israel, do not accept the teachings of the New Testament, all the punishment, and judgments, we’re declared
    by God Himsel…If those cynics, who wrote such drivel, from the Infamous Post..would take time to enquire into the Old Testament written by Jews, to the Jews….that New Testament believers, do not rejoice in the cruel treatment of God’s Chosen People…..but to the contrary……
    We pray for them, and for…THE PEACE OF JERUSALEM….Adrianna Huffington, get off your high horse, and get your facts straight
    From God Himself, as written in the Old Testament…and apologize to all those you have denigrated and put to shame….for sheer political gain! Your so called ‘Post’
    should be un ‘posted’ and start by being honest for once…and…tell…the…truth…

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