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.

(page 2 of 3)

Princeton University professor Wendy Heller, author of “Music in the Baroque,” concurs with Smith. She dismissed Marissen’s attempt to “distort evidence, fuel outrage, or analyze Handel’s music in ways that contradict everything we know about him as a composer.” Regarding Marissen’s suggestion of an implicit anti-Jewish message in “Messiah,” Heller explained: “These claims run contrary to everything we know about Handel’s aesthetic and his very approach to composing music.” She added that the presence of trumpets and drums in the “Hallelujah” chorus does not indicate that Handel was kvelling over the Temple’s destruction, since similar orchestration occurs in other Handel works. This argument seems only reasonable; otherwise, a 1959 recording of “Messiah” conducted by Thomas Beecham would presumably be even more anti-Jewish because its orchestrator, Eugene Goossens, added clangorous marching band cymbals, piccolo and triangle to the “Hallelujah” chorus.

An even more resounding rebuttal was a 2010 article in the Journal of the American Musicological Society by John Roberts, a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of California, Berkeley. Like Heller, Roberts rejected Marissen’s analysis of the “Hallelujah” chorus as “over the-top triumph” over the fall of Jerusalem because of the presence of drums and trumpets. The point of this chorus, as audiences have instinctively felt for generations, says Roberts, is to depict all-embracing godliness, not gloat over Jewish woes. “There is scant reason to interpret ‘Messiah’ as intentionally anti-Jewish,” Roberts wrote. “Too often Marissen’s presentation of evidence is tendentious, his reasoning forced, his conclusions exaggerated… [T]he supposed evidence is presented in a highly inflammatory way. We have passed beyond historical inquiry into the realm of propaganda.” Roberts chided Marissen for using “flawed arguments based on questionable evidence to enforce a meaning that most of [his] readers are bound to find offensive,” resulting in a “disservice to [musicology].”



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