Monday, March 31, 2014

Commentary: Tainted Glory in Handel's Messiah

Marissen, Michael.  Tainted Glory in Handel's Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World's Most Beloved Choral Work.  New Haven: Yale, 2014.

It's that time of year.  Across the USA, we are approaching the time of year when countless church choirs will be breaking out their trusty old G. Schirmer editions and warming up the old vocal chords to crank out their annual rendition of the chorus for Easter Sunday.  They might bring in trumpets or timpani for support.  They might bring in members of the congregation to sing along.  And in many cases the congregation will stand, because that's what you always do, even if nobody is sure why.  Whatever the combination, voices will cry out:

HAAAA-le-lu-jah! HAAA-le-lu-jah!  Ha-le-LU-jah! Ha-le-LU-jah! Ha-le-EHHHH-lu-jah!

Yes, that chorus (which is officially titled simply "Hallelujah") will be busting out all over.  It was heard plenty in concert halls back in December, when the whole oratorio Messiah (no "The," please) got its annual workout.  But for Easter the churches largely take over, and this one chorus is the principal object in most cases (although some churches may substitute or add the later chorus "Worthy is the Lamb").

Those singers and directors might not want to read Michael Marissen's new book.  Tainted Glory in Handel's Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World's Most Beloved Choral Work presents a case that the oratorio, perhaps to the disappointment of millions of Americans, is not a product of American evangelicalism, but indeed a reflection of a pervasive anti-Jewish sentiment found in religious discourse of the eighteenth-century England in which it was created.

Biblical students nowadays cannot escape confronting the idea that parts of the New Testament, reflecting the situation of the communities in which they were created, contain a decent amount of rhetoric that is at minimum quite inflammatory in its anger against the Jewish population from which those communities were being gradually but firmly separated due to their insistence on this backwater rabbi Jesus as the long-expected Messiah.  This contentiousness between Jew and "Christian" (as the term eventually came to be) continued as the latter spread out from Palestine and began to be found in parts both east and west.  Eventually, though, those Christians picked up a rather significant ally: the Roman Empire, at least once Constantine decided to appropriate the faith for his own purposes.  At that point Jewish-Christian contentiousness became a rather lopsided affair.

Nonetheless Christianity did not suddenly give up its complaints against Judaism.  Instead, too many times over the centuries it used its power to act out on old grudges.  The history does not need to be recited here; crusades, inquisitions, expulsions dot the landscape of time.

Marissen is quite detailed in explaining the particular context of anti-Jewish sentiment in the England of the 1700s, which may have surprising origins for some.  As he demonstrates, such arguments were pervasive in English theological thought, as reflected in numerous commentaries penned and in wide use during the period.  Believe me, if you read this book (which you should), you'll learn more about those commentaries than you ever imagined you would.

These are significant because, as it turns out, they were important in the creation of the libretto of Messiah; the librettist Charles Jennens had them in his library (and even contributed to the publication of some by subscription) and in some cases used the wording of those commentaries for certain scriptures in his libretto instead of the King James Bible or the Book of Common Prayer, from which most of his text was taken.  These wordings matter, as these commentaries use them to direct the reader's interpretation of these selected passages towards a kind of gloating in events such as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70.  Handel's musical setting of those texts at times does its part to enhance or reinforce the text and the baggage contained therein.  In turn, early critics of the oratorio (one of whom is no less than John Newton, the author of "Amazing grace") read those anti-Jewish gloatings into their understanding of Jennens's libretto and Handel's music. All of this is traced in minute detail.

This isn't a review: I'm not going to go into huge detail because I think you need to wrestle with the book yourself.  But the detail is immense, deeply researched, and cogently argued.

Marissen has taken a lot of flack for this bit of research since it first began to appear on the musicology-conference circuit.  I heard him give two presentations of this research as he was developing it: one at a conference of a group then called the Forum on Music and Christian Scholarship, and one at the meeting of the American Musicological Society, the flagship organization in the field.  The response to this research at the former was sober, perhaps pained, but respectful and mostly about what the proper response should be.  The response at the latter was more contentious and somewhat dismissive.  Later, the journal of that latter organization published a vile bit of character assassination thinly disguised as scholarship directed against that paper.

All of which is to say that Marissen has taken some shots for this research, and in the book he is quite determined to answer his critics.  The argument is thorough, sometimes dense, and not an easy read, but it needs to be read.

Christians aren't given permission to be mindless.  We don't get to read scripture without understanding the context in which it was born.  We don't get to ignore the virulent anti-Semitism expressed by heroes of the Reformation like Luther.  We don't get to ignore the particular nastiness of Wagner's attitudes towards Jews.  We don't get to cherry-pick the products, intellectual or artistic, of history without being liable for the baggage they may have accumulated.  That doesn't mean we give up scripture.  That doesn't mean we don't study Luther.  That doesn't mean we don't listen to Wagner's music (well, I don't personally, but that is a different issue -- who has time for a six-hour music drama?).  But you don't get to pretend the issues aren't there.

The book is in two parts: one an essay containing Marissen's basic argument, the other a detailed analysis of the libretto in full.  The book is actually not terribly long, which is probably well enough as it is dense and detailed, and the libretto analysis itself is well worth the price.

Go get it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

La rappresentazione dello spirito e il ricercatore dello spirito

Of late in driving about nearby I see signs advertising a "Spirit-filled Bible Study."  I have no idea what this means.  Bible study is a good thing.  I'm not quite sure where the "spirit-filled" part fits in, as if somehow the actual Holy Spirit would ever be absent from a serious and genuine attempt to read and study the Bible.

The title refers to this musical work, one of the best titles ever if nothing else in musical history.  "Dialogue of the soul and the body" was a pretty common literary type as well.  This isn't quite that, but for whatever perverse reason the allusion appealed to me, if for no other reason than one of irony.

Nothing so lofty as this, no...

Spirit-seeker: O Lord, send me your spirit.
Spirit: Yo! I'm right here.
Spirit-seeker: I yearn for the touch of your spirit, O Lord.
Spirit: Still right here.  Is there something in particular you're looking for?
Spirit-seeker: Lead me, O Lord.  Guide me by your Spirit.
Spirit: Excuse me, have you not been listening?  "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" 
Spirit-seeker: Give me a double portion of your Spirit, O Lord.
Spirit: Huh?  What?  You want me to say everything twice?
Spirit-seeker: I long to feel your Spirit, Lord, in this dry and barren land.
Spirit: So you want a feeling, huh? Go feed the hungry and see how that feels.  
Spirit-seeker: I want to be filled with your Spirit, God! Lift me up! Raise me higher!
Spirit: You want to be lifted up? Go lift up others.  Care for the sick.  Sit with the dying.  Loosen the bonds of the oppressed.  
Spirit-seeker: Why can't I feel your presence, God? Why do you withhold your Spirit from me?
Spirit: Are you spiritually deaf? I'm not here to be your amphetamines.  I'm here to remind you what God has already commanded you to do.  It's all over the Bible already.  You say you love that book, but I am starting to wonder if you've ever read it.  And yes, that would help a lot if you really want to be filled with me.  
Spirit-seeker: Are you there, God? Why do you withhold your Spirit from me?
Spirit: When you tell me why you withhold your service from me, then you'll get your answer.  Get out there and be Christ-like, act like you actually follow Christ.  Stop sitting here whining about somebody else filling you with anything.  Go be a Christ-follower!  That's where you'll get full of me! What will it take to get you to hear me?  Go minister to the least of these!
Are you listening???
Spirit-seeker: O Lord, send me your spirit!
Spirit: <facepalm>


Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I am a bit depleted today.  Nothing major, but the cough I keep thinking is gone keeps coming back.  It's almost spring break here, which means the last mad push to get stuff done before then.  We had a seventy-degree day Sunday, followed by a couple of inches of snow on Monday with temperatures getting down around eleven degrees that night, and now warming somewhat again.  I had an eye exam yesterday morning, which involved having my eyes dilated, and I always forget how debilitating that is to me until it happens.  It's only a three-hour drive home but I couldn't do it with the bright sun reflecting off all that snow.  Chapel this morning involved singing Allegri's Miserere, not that difficult a work but rather long and involved.  So yeah, "depleted" is a good word for today.

It's probably just as well I got "ashed" twice today -- at chapel on campus this morning and at church this evening.  I don't know if the psalmist of Psalm 51 had any concept of being "depleted" among all the talk about a "broken" and "contrite" spirit, but I'm going to go with it as fitting.

But my mind wandered, as it often does.  Ashes are an interesting symbol to have smeared cross-like upon one's forehead.  The saying about "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is typically invoked to point to the ashes as a reminder of our finiteness and mortality, and theologically that's all fine and good.

I can't help but think of ashes in other contexts, though, contexts that have more to do with our need to repent.

Lac-Megantic, Quebec, July 2013

Ashes, of course, come from fire.  Something is consumed, and ashes are what remain.  In many traditions historically, and even today, ashes are the final condition of the human body.  Hence the reminder of our mortality.

Other things, of course, are burned to leave ashes.  For the Ash Wednesday observance, tradition dictates that the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday observance provide the ashes for this year's Ash Wednesday.  

Ashes are also sometimes the product of burning for other purposes -- a log in a fireplace, for example, to warm all those around.  

Or sometimes ashes are the result of human folly.  Because of our all-consuming need to consume, we go to greater and more destructive extremes to find fuel for our consumption.  We fail, though, to see how destructive that fuel can be, and assume we need no greater caution with stuff that turns out to be even more flammable.  And so, a train derails and explodes (so powerfully that it was visible from space), and destroys most of a town in Quebec.  

Then it happened in Alabama.

Near Aliceville, Alabama, November 2013

And North Dakota.

Casselton, North Dakota, December 2013

And in New Brunswick (that's in Canada, for those geographically deprived about Canada.)

Near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, January 2014

For a change, here's one that didn't explode or burn.  That's the good news.  The bad news is this was smack in the middle of Philadelphia.  Too close for comfort to millions of people.  Potentially an awful lot of ashes.

Over the Schuylkill River, January 2014

It doesn't have to come from an oil train, or even a pipeline (they've been blowing up too).  Maybe it's acres upon acres of Amazon rainforest, burned off to clear land for cattle grazing.  Maybe its a Salem witch trial.  Maybe it's acres of wildfires destroying homes that had no business being built in a wildfire zone.  Maybe it's Auschwitz.  

So much destruction, intended or carelessly encouraged.  Ashes.  Signs of our fallibility.  

Ashes remind us of our mortality, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  Maybe ashes should also remind us of our own need to repent.  Not merely confess, but repent.  Change.  Stop doing what we're doing.  

Our fires don't seem to purify, do they?  All too often they do seem to hasten our mortality, instead of merely reminding us of it.