In 2007, Michael Marissen wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, contending that the "Hallelujah" chorus of Handel’s Messiah contained an undercurrent of anti-Judaism. Because of an overwhelming response to the column, Marissen has written a book to offer a more nuanced treatment of the topic. Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World’s Most Beloved Choral Work is being published in April, just in time for Easter, by Yale University Press. PW spoke with Marissen by phone at his office at Swarthmore College, where he is Daniel Underhill Professor of Music.
What prompted you to write this book now?
I’ve been working on the ideas in this book for over ten years. In 1998, I wrote a book called Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion (Oxford Univ. Press) that responded to the ways familiar pieces of powerful religious music could contain some unpleasant messages. In 2007, a features editor at the New York Times asked me to write a piece for the Easter Sunday edition, and in it I asked how the "Hallelujah" chorus of Handel’s Messiah can sound so magnificent but be so magnificently malevolent. There’s this fantastic certainty that Messiah projects regarding the dashing to pieces of God’s enemies, including the Jews. The question I asked in that column—What is the line between triumphalism and the joy of triumph?—became the center of this book.
What kind of response did you receive to the Times piece?
I did get a great deal of hate mail. Many people felt I was condemning the truth and beauty of Handel’s entire Messiah because of debatable issues of anti-Judaism surrounding only one number, the "Hallelujah" chorus. Other readers felt I hated Handel and Christianity and that I wanted others to hate them too. I wanted to write this book to reflect my great love of Messiah, but also to express my grave concern about what I’ve here called its anti-Jewish Christian triumphalism.
How did you come up with the title?
The original title was Rejoicing against Judaism in Handel’s Messiah, but we decided that was quite harsh. However, I took that title from the passage in Romans where Paul tells Christians not to rejoice or exalt over Jews who do not believe in Jesus. Ironically, while Paul issues this warning, Handel’s Messiah is telling the Christians to do just that: exalt themselves over the Jews.
Tell me how you discovered these issues in Handel’s Messiah.
This was like detective work. The Messiah libretto was created by Charles Jennens, who was a friend of Handel’s. For the libretto, he gave Handel a series of passages, some of which came from the King James Version of the Bible and others from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. Jennens then revised some of these passages on the basis of religious or linguistic suggestions in popular or scholarly biblical commentaries he consulted. It became clear to me that he was as worried about Deism [the belief that God had simply created the cosmos and left it to run on its own] as [he was about] the monotheistic traditions that were not Christian that he believed threatened Christianity. Jennens understood there is real spiritual power in the arts. He might well have thought he’d put these ideas in music and get the greatest composer in the world to write the piece.
How has your research changed your view of Handel’s work?
I just listened to it last week, and I think I like it more than ever. It’s an incredibly glorious piece, but it’s also tainted. However, the music expresses this tension that exists between aesthetics and ethics, and I think that to be able to live in that tension is what it means to be a serious religious person.
What insights would you like people to take from your book?
I hope it will raise the question of triumphalism for them. Reasonable people can differ about the level of anti-Judaism in the work, but that level ratchets up when you begin to look at the textual variants. I hope that the book will illustrate the irreconcilable aspect of a body of music and the message it expresses. I want to deflate the notion that the heart trumps all; that’s a hollow ethical ideal. Messiah has this spectacular life-affirming aspect, but to focus only on the aesthetic dimensions of the piece diminishes it, for it expresses things otherwise difficult to express, especially this undercurrent of triumphalism.
What’s next for you?
I really need to take a break from religious topics. I will be working on a general reader’s introduction to Bach, as well as a book of music theory.