Music

Is Handel’s Messiah anti-Semitic?

Baroque scholar Michael Marissen thinks so, but Damian Thompson doesn’t buy it

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

The Hallelujah Chorus crops up in the most unexpected places, says Michael Marissen in his new book about Handel’s Messiah. For example, it’s used in a TV ad ‘depicting frantic bears’ ecstatic relief in chancing upon Charmin toilet paper in the woods’.

That’s an amusing detail: it lingers in the mind. But, as you can work out from the title, Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah isn’t intended to be a fun read. Marissen, an American specialist in baroque music, has been taking a long, hard look at the oratorio’s libretto, adapted from the Old and New Testaments by Charles Jennens, a gentleman scholar. He has uncovered a disturbing subtext — ‘hateful sentiments’ directed against Jews that are masked by the magnificence of the score. And he thinks this should make Christian audiences (his own background is Dutch Calvinist) feel uncomfortable.

Let me try to sum up his argument. Messiah famously leaps between the Gospels and the Hebrew Bible, as we are now supposed to call the Old Testament. Consider its first words: the recitative ‘Comfort ye’ leading into the aria ‘Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted’, exquisitely decorated by the tenor Charles Daniels in McCreesh’s recording with the Gabrieli Consort. The words are from Isaiah 40:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, said your God; speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her Warfare is accomplished, that her Iniquity is pardon’d.


For Jews, ‘ye my people’ refers to the prophets or perhaps the priests of Israel. For Jennens, and indeed for most 18th-century Protestants, the verse was addressed prophetically to Christians who have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, who forgives them their iniquity. The book lists many examples of such impertinence. The choir sings ‘And He shall purify the Sons of Levi’ (Malachi 3:3). That sounds innocuous enough, but Marissen suspects that Messiah is referring to the ‘purification’ (i.e., destruction) of the Temple by the Romans in AD 70: a vengeance visited on the Jews by Jesus for their failure to acknowledge Him. And perhaps it also signals the end of the ‘impure’ carnal sacrifices of the Temple.

Then consider the words from Psalm 2, ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together…?’, roared out by the bass soloist above wildly surging strings. Most old versions of the Bible use the word ‘heathen’ rather than ‘nations’. Marissen reckons that ‘heathen’ is easier to sing — so why did Jennens choose an alternative translation? Perhaps because ‘nations’ can be made to conjure up quarrelling Jews (who were never considered to be heathens).

This is where my patience ran out. Marissen sounds like one of those bogus archaeologists determined to find evidence of the Mayan script on the Rosetta Stone. As it happens, ‘nations’ is easier to sing than ‘heathen’ — try it — and less likely to be misheard by the audience. Surely that’s why Jennens and Handel chose the word. This isn’t to say that Marissen’s thesis is entirely wrong: the Christian habit of scouring the Hebrew scriptures for prophecies of Jesus does offend devout Jews, particularly if it violates the plain meaning of the text. However, they’re even more offended by what they regard as the blasphemous claim that Jesus of Nazareth was God, which remains at the heart of the Christian faith. Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby may not approve of the casual juxtaposition of Old and New Testaments in Messiah, but they would never question the divinity of Christ. And every time they say the Creed they affirm that the Hebrew Bible predicts the Resurrection — ‘He rose again, according to the scriptures’.

Messiah isn’t an attack on Jews. You can make a case that its theology reflects what Marissen calls ‘anti-Judaism’, but doing so requires a lot of homework. In this respect it resembles Wagner’s operas: the composer was a venomous Jew-hater, but nobody who wasn’t aware of this would guess it from listening to his work. If you’re looking for anti-Semitism in a masterpiece I’d suggest Bach’s St John Passion, whose electrifying choruses portray Jews baying for Jesus’s blood. Unlike Messiah, those passages send a chill down the spine. But we can’t really blame Bach, since the libretto is lifted straight from the Gospel.

To sum up: Christians can enjoy Handel’s oratorio with a clear conscience, though if I were a religious Jew I might find it off-putting. End of story. Incidentally, I’m not sure Marissen is right about the advert with the bears, the loo paper and the Hallelujah Chorus. I can’t find any trace of it on the internet. Although Charmin does make ads featuring cartoon bears, none of them includes a note of Handel. Instead, the creatures discuss the special absorbency of the tissue, which means you need fewer sheets than usual. They go into a surprising amount of detail, but I’ll spare you that.

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  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Thought you bead mumblers were into anti-Semitism. Why it was only in 1964 that Mother Church stopped preaching from the pulpit that the Jews were collectively guilty of deicide, namely the killing of God in the figure of Jesus Christ. On the basis one verse in St. John’s Gospel.

  • The_greyhound

    I thought Jennens was a non-juror, and that the sub-text was about the Divine Right of Kings. But that doesn’t play to modern neuroses. Presumably next week it’ll be Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans implicitly criticizing women-only shortlists or wind farms.

    Still, I learned that Marissen is another name on the bookshelf to avoid.

  • Julie

    More alarmingly, that Judas Maccabaeus was propaganda for the Hanoverian victory at Culloden, ( Even ‘Thine Be the Glory’ will never sound the same again )

    Of itself, the OT is replete with demands and ultimata for the absolute fidelity of Israel:
    “suddenly the angel will enter the temple…he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and then they will make the offering … as it should be made”

    • MWnyc

      Judas Maccabeus? How about the Occasional Oratorio?

    • MWnyc

      Judas Maccabeus? How about the Occasional Oratorio?

  • mdj

    It’s an interesting question why so many of Handel’s oratorios are on Old Testament topics, since Jews don’t seem to have been significant attenders, whatever one might surmise.
    On the other hand, when Theodora was ready for performance he was reportedly pessimistic about the box-office prospects, on the grounds that the ladies would stay away because the plot was not salacious, and the Jews because it was explicitly Christian.

  • Kenneth

    More worrying for legitimists is Handel’s slavish devotion to the Hanoverian kings – usurpers!

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  • IainRMuir

    If I were a Jew, I think Handel’s Messiah would be the least of my problems.

  • Thanks to Dr Brave for bringing back my wife,and brought great joy to my family?

    Hello to every one out here, am here to share the unexpected miracle that happened to me three days ago, My name is Jeffrey Dowling,i live in TEXAS,USA.and I`m happily married to a lovely and caring wife,with two kids A very big problem occurred in my family seven months ago,between me and my wife so terrible that she took the case to court for a divorce she said that she never wanted to stay with me again,and that she did not love me anymore So she packed out of my house and made me and my children passed through severe pain. I tried all my possible means to get her back,after much begging,but all to no avail and she confirmed it that she has made her decision,and she never wanted to see me again. So on one evening,as i was coming back from work,i met an old friend of mine who asked of my wife So i explained every thing to her,so she told me that the only way i can get my wife back,is to visit a spell caster,because it has really worked for her too So i never believed in spell,but i had no other choice,than to follow her advice. Then she gave me the email address of the spell caster whom she visited.(bravespellcaster@gmail.com}, So the next morning,i sent a mail to the address she gave to me,and the spell caster assured me that i will get my wife back the next day what an amazing statement!! I never believed,so he spoke with me,and told me everything that i need to do. Then the next morning, So surprisingly, my wife who did not call me for the past seven {7}months,gave me a call to inform me that she was coming back So Amazing!! So that was how she came back that same day,with lots of love and joy,and she apologized for her mistake,and for the pain she caused me and my children. Then from that day,our relationship was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster . So, was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster . So, i will advice you out there to kindly visit the same website http://bravespellcaster.yolasite.com,if you are in any condition like this,or you have any problem related to “bringing your ex back. So thanks to Dr Brave for bringing back my wife,and brought great joy to my family once again.{bravespellcaster@gmail.com} , Thanks.

    Are you passing through any of these problems,

    DO YOU NEED YOUR EX BACK VERY FAST

    DON YOU WANT YOUR LOVER TO LOVE YOU AS NEVER LIKE BEFORE

    ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM A LONG TIME SICKNESS

    ARE YOU FACING FINANCIAL PROBLEMS

    ARE YOU SEEKING FOR A GOOD JOB

    DO YOU WANT TO BECOME A HOUSE OWNER

    ARE YOU LOOKING FOR A FIRST CLASS GRADE

    DO YOU WANT TO COME OUT FIRST IN YOUR EXAMS

    ARE YOU A STAR AND YOU WANT TO BE SO POPULAR TO THE WHOLE WORLD

    DO YOU WANT TO BE RICH

    DO YOU WANT YOUR BUSINESS TO KEEP MOVING

    DO YOU HAVE A COMPANY OF ANY KIND AND YOU WANT IT TO EXPAND

    DO YOU WANT YOUR HUSBAND OR WIFE TO KEEP TO YOUR WORLD

    ARE YOU FACING ANY MARITAL PROBLEMS

    ARE YOU FINDING IT DIFFICULT TO GET PREGNANT FOR YOUR HUSBAND

    ARE YOU EXPERIENCING MISCARRIAGES ANY TIME YOU TAKE IN

    DO YOU WANT TO COMPETE IN ANY LOTTERY GAME

    ARE YOU FACING HARDSHIP

    HAVE YOU BEEN THREATENED BY SOMEONE

    DO YOU WANT TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN ANY THING YOU LAY YOUR HANDS ON

    IS YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER BEHAVING STRANGELY

    ARE YOU FACING WITCH CRAFT MANIPULATIONS

    DO YOU WANT TO CAST A STRONG LOVE SPELL ON YOUR GIRL OR BOY FRIEND

    DO YOU NEED MAGIC POWERS TO DO ANY THING YOU WANT

    ARE YOU FINDING IT DIFFICULT TO CHOOSE A LIFE PARTNER

    DO YOU WANT YOUR PARENTS TO BE PROUD OF YOU

    ARE YOU EXPERIENCING FAILURE AND DISAPPOINTMENT IN ANY THING YOU DO.(ETC)

    i will advice you out there to kindly visit the same website http://bravespellcaster.yolasite.com,if you are in any condition like this,or you have any problem related to “bringing your ex back. So thanks to Dr Brave for bringing back my wife,and brought great joy to my family once again.{bravespellcaster@gmail.com} , Thanks.

  • Dominic Farrell

    The Hebrew for ‘heathens/nations’ in this context is goyim (plural of goy), usually translated as Gentiles. Anyone familiar with Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms will know the verse in the original: Lamah rag’shu goyim? It specifically doesn’t refer to the Jews! For Marissen to read ‘nations’ as an attack on the Jews is particularly perverse.

  • Frances Shaw

    My guess as to why ‘nations’ rather than ‘heathen’ is that he was using the Latin version which refers to ‘gentes’ – 1 Quare fremuerunt gentes et populi meditati sunt inania 1 Why have the Gentiles raged, and the people devised vain things?

  • Guest

    hey Thompson, I cant say I miss you on the DT & you still are more expert on custard than music , however I hope you & Phil Evens will be very happy together

  • zugzwang

    I am a Jew, and I confirm that Messiah is the least of my problems.

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