Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an Anti-Semitic Screed?

Scholar Makes Controversial Claims About 'Hallelujah' Chorus

Musical Dupes? (From far right) Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz and others join together for the Hallelujah Chorus.
AP Photo
Musical Dupes? (From far right) Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz and others join together for the Hallelujah Chorus.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published April 12, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
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I recall walking through the lobby of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel around 1978, when TVs were blasting the Israeli broadcast premiere of Handel’s “Messiah.” Sung in Hebrew and played by the Israel Philharmonic, this “Messiah” supposedly deleted every mention of Jesus. With or without Jesus, music-loving Jews tend to enjoy “Messiah,” which makes Michael Marissen’s new book “Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah” all the more troublesome.

Marissen is a Swarthmore College professor, and the use of the word “tainted” in the title suggests a muckraking exposé of the kind that gleefully tells shoppers their microwavable tacos contain horsemeat. Marissen’s message is nearly as visceral and alarmist: “Messiah” is an anti-Jewish work, and its famed “Hallelujah” chorus represents triumphal gloating over the Roman destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 C.E. In the aria “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,” the “them” to be broken are Jews.

In a 2007 New York Times essay accompanying a scholarly article, Marissen asserted that “Messiah” was “designed to teach contempt for Jews and Judaism… [It] is not a matter of so-called racial anti-Semitism but rather of exulting over misfortunes of the religion of Judaism and of its practitioners.” Marissen even claimed that some musical figures are “meant to throw a sharp light on the loathsome characteristics ascribed in the [New Testament] to the Jews.”

To justify his arguments, Marissen noted that Charles Jennens, who compiled the text for “Messiah” mostly from the Old Testament, owned a volume of anti-Semitic sermons, Richard Kidder’s 1726 “A Demonstration of the Messias: In which the Truth of the Christian Religion is proved against all the Enemies thereof; but especially against the Jews.” Yet how Jennens, not to mention Handel, felt about this book remains moot.

Other Handelians, including Ruth Smith of Cambridge University, author of “Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought,” promptly refuted Marissen’s assertions. Writing for NYTimes.com, Smith opined that while “Messiah” promotes Christianity, its purpose was not “repudiation of, and hostility toward, Judaism.” Nor has posterity recorded any anti-Semitic statement by Handel or Jennens. On the contrary, John Hawkins’s “General History of the Science and Practice of Music” describes Handel as relishing constitutionally protected religious tolerance in England.


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