“Tainted Glory in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – The Unsettling History of the World’s Most Beloved Choral Work” by Michael Marissen (Yale University Press, $40)

By David Steinberg

Don’t get author Michael Marissen wrong. He is, as millions are, enraptured by Handel’s “Messiah.”

Marissen plainly says so in the introduction to his scholarly book “Tainted Glory in Handel’s ‘Messiah'”: “For me, ‘Messiah’ is music of tremendous artistic and life-affirming spiritual beauty.”

What may surprise or even shock “Messiah” lovers, is that Marissen has an ethical and theological problem with its lyrics, and to some extent, the musical setting of the 1742 sacred oratorio.

And so he states this opinion in the introduction: ” …the magnificent joy of Handel’s music is not merely at odds with a dreadful anti-Judaic message in ‘Messiah’; it is at the very same time a scandalous affirmation of that message.”

All of the positivity he hears in the oratorio  converge “with a triumphal squashing of Jews.”

Thus his scholarly book examines the lyrics of the oratorio and the social and religious environment that produced them. A British aristocrat and Handel friend named Charles Jennens wrote the lyrics.

One result of Marissen’s examination of that world is that he concluded that the most famous passage – the Hallelujah chorus – is less about rejoicing Jesus’ birth or resurrection but rather, “the ‘dashing in pieces’ of unbelievers in Christ Jesus, including ‘the people (of Israel),’ ‘the Jews’.”

Marissen expands on his argument about that passage.

The Hallelujah chorus “was designed in a way that apparently rejoices, in significant part, over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in the year 70 CE…”

It was, he noted, a terrible event “that until recently most Christians construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God’s promised Messiah.”

Marissen lays out arguments that Handel’s musical setting, though to a lesser extent than Jennens’ libretto, contributed to this anti-Jew and anti-Judaism of the oratorio’s narrative.

In his book, Marissen devotes 100 pages to his annotated libretto as contextual and supporting evidence for his main arguments about the book’s subject.

For any fan of “Messiah,” this book will shed startling and deserving new light on the work itself and its milieu.

Which is why the word “Tainted” in the book’s title -and “unsettling” in the subtitle – are appropriate descriptions of the book’s conclusions.

PS. Marissen declares that “Messiah” was meant for performance during Lent, not the Christmas season. Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico will perform Part II (containing the Hallelujah chorus) in concert Friday, March 13 at the Cathedral of St. John in downtown Albuquerque.

Marissen is the Daniel Underhill Professor of Music at Swarthmore College. He is also the author of the book “Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion.”

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