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.

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