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 3 of 3)

By contrast, Alexander Ringer honored the field of music research with his 1961 article “Handel and the Jews.” A survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and professor at the University of Illinois, Ringer cited Nietzsche, who praised Handel’s “Judeo-heroic trait which gave the Reformation a touch of greatness, the Old Testament, not the New, become music.” Handel’s numerous Old Testament-inspired oratorios include “Belshazzar,” “Deborah,” “Esther,” “Israel in Egypt,” “Jephtha,” “Joseph and his Brethren,” “Joshua,” “Judas Maccabaeus,” “Samson,” “Saul” and “Solomon.” For Ringer, in “Esther” Handel identified the “Jewish cause with the humanitarian strivings of an era dedicated to social progress… [Handel’s] preoccupation with a persecuted minority, his relentless glorification of their ancient greatness, reflected the measure of his sense of humanity and his unshakeable faith in the possibility of human progress… His deeply rooted admiration for, and understanding of, the heroic history of ancient Israel became inseparable from his respect and friendship for the Jews whom he had come to know personally.”

Ringer pinpointed the apotheosis of this feeling in Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus,” where the eponymous hero symbolizes a British military hero, the Duke of Cumberland, just as Handel would pay homage to King George II of England in the title character of his “Solomon.” Marissen has objected that such themes were not “pro-Jewish. Handel and his contemporaries did have a high opinion of the characters populating the Hebrew Bible, not as ‘Jews’ but as proto-Christian believers in God’s expected Messiah, Jesus.”

Yet this distinction, if it existed, was ignored by Handel’s Jewish contemporaries. In 1759, Jacob Saraval, a Venetian rabbi, prepared a Hebrew-language translation of Handel’s “Esther,” apparently for a performance at an Amsterdam congregation’s Purim shpiel. Seven years after Handel’s death, London’s rebuilt Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place was consecrated with music, including one of Handel’s coronation anthems. This pioneering use of non-Jewish music in a synagogue may be seen as a tribute to the artistic inspiration Handel took from Jewish history, as is the longtime inclusion by many synagogues of Handel’s melody “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” from “Judas Maccabaeus” as part of Passover observance.

Handel also inspired persecuted 20th century Jews. In 1933, Nazi officials formed a Jewish Culture League to control German Jewish cultural expression. Among the few German compositions Jews were allowed to perform in the Culture League were Handel’s Old Testament-based oratorios. Even after the League was dissolved in 1941 and its musicians deported, “Israel in Egypt” and “Judas Maccabaeus” were reportedly performed in Theresienstadt as examples of Jewish pride. Were these performances wrong-headed? Could Jewish audiences who relish the humane, all-inclusive emotion of the “Hallelujah” chorus as conducted by such inspired maestros as Colin Davis and Robert Shaw, be mistaken?

The answer appears to be no.

Benjamin Ivry writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.