Behind the Music: Handel edition

Preparations Are Made For Handel's Anniversary Concert At Westminster Abbey

It’s that time of year when concerts of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah occur with seemingly ubiquity. The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini reviewed one such performance yesterday, remarking that the bass “sang the repeated ‘the dead shall be raised incorruptible’ and ‘we shall be changed’ with such prophetic vigor that the prospect seemed almost terrifying.” I read a review of a different Messiah concert in the same paper a few weeks ago.

Messiah is a piece with meaning and tradition and while I’ve yet to understand why an Easter oratorio is associated with the season during which Jesus’ birth is celebrated, the fact remains that it’s a Christmas tradition for many.

But there was an article about the work that has been in my guilt file since early November. It’s an Associated Press piece that is all about Messiah‘s popularity. It begins with an anecdote about a Christan man who, when a boy, felt that the he understood heaven after hearing the “Hallelujah” chorus. And then:

But you don’t have to be a Christian to love “Messiah.” Tens of thousands of Americans from all different social and religious backgrounds will gather in churches, concert halls and living rooms beginning in mid-December to sing all or parts of the 2 1/2 hour oratorio.

So we learn about various ways that communities perform the oratorio. There are do-it-yourself versions and other sing-alongs. There are also large-scale performances. Choral singers feel that the piece, so well known, creates community.

But the piece, which holds the distinction of being performed continuously since it was written 268 years ago, has a darker side, we’re told:

Perhaps none of the more than 50 movements is quite as thrilling as “Hallelujah,” when the audience rises and the chorus begins to sing, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.”

Although the tradition is said to have started after King George II stood at one of Handel’s London performances, there is no evidence he ever attended a performance of “Messiah,” according to Fred Fehleisen of The Julliard School.

Recently, Michael Marissen, a music professor at Swarthmore College, created a stir by suggesting that modern, secular audiences might be unnerved if they knew what they were standing for. Although the work is now traditionally performed around Christmas, Handel actually wrote “Messiah” for the Easter season. The oratorio is in three parts: the first tells about Jesus’ birth, the second about his suffering and the destruction of his enemies, and the third about the promise of eternal life through Jesus.

Although “Hallelujah” is widely understood today as a moment of rejoicing at the birth of Jesus, it actually comes at the end of the second part, following passages that chide non-believers for refusing to accept Jesus and urge Jesus to break them “with a rod of iron.”

Marissen says that Handel’s audience would have understood those passages as referring to the Jews. And when they heard the “over-the-top triumph” of “Hallelujah,” they would have seen it as a celebration of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 A.D., which was seen by Christians as divine punishment for the Jews’ refusal to accept Jesus as messiah. Such an anti-Jewish interpretation was standard in 18th century England, Marissen says, though “most Christians now don’t think of it that way.”

Yeah, I remember when the New York Times ran his essay in 2007 arguing this point. They ran it on, wait for it, Easter Sunday. I filed it under the “How can we harsh on Christians?” thing that the media seem to love to do around holy days.

And I think it’s downright fascinating that the piece doesn’t explain how Marissen doesn’t know in what year or in what city people began standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus — but he does know that they did it because they’re anti-Semitic.

But what’s most interesting is that the AP ends the piece with Marissen’s views! We don’t hear from anyone else, such Michael Linton, the head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University, who responded to Marissen’s piece years ago. Marissen had written that “surely” the people stood because they were all a bunch of anti-Semites. Linton wrote:

Surely? Not even a scholarly circumspect “arguably”? Does Marissen really expect us to believe that what immediately came to the minds of nearly everyone who heard the “Hallelujah Chorus” under Handel’s direction was the Lord’s vengeful destruction of Jerusalem?

Surely not. What did come to mind, and what Handel wanted to come to mind, was the immensely popular music he wrote for the coronation of George II in 1727 (repeated at the coronation at every British monarch since). “Zadok the Priest,” in its D major key, diatonic construction, choral outbursts, and orchestration is the model for the “Hallelujah Chorus,” written fifteen years later. What Handel’s listeners heard in the Messiah chorus wasn’t a conquest anthem but music celebrating the coronation of Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, music directly reminiscent of the music they already knew celebrating the coronation of George, “by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc.” . . .

They were Christians who believed that the Old Testament could only be understood properly when read through the saving work of Christ–and Christians who believed that those who didn’t read the Old Testament that way were endangering their immortal souls with hellfire.

I’m sure Marissen’s views are totally popular among some people, such as whoever chose them for inclusion in that Easter Sunday New York Times in 2007. But they’re also completely dismissed as ludicrous by many others. I’m not saying Marissen’s views should have been in the piece, but if they were, it’s amateurish to not include a response from his critics.

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  • Joel

    I had always thought it was a king of France who stood at the Hallelujah Chorus. My wife insists it’s because worshipers traditionally stand at the Alleluia at Mass, but I don’t know if that applied to the Tridentine Mass in use at the time. (Nor if the Protestant Handel would have approved of that usage.)

  • Martha

    Goodness, that’s an interesting interpretation, to say the least. I would have imagined that 18th century audiences might have considered unbelievers to include Turks (that is, Moslems), atheists, and Catholics amongst the number, as well as the Jews.

    I think it’s much more likely that instead of the fall of Jerusalem springing to mind, they might have thought of how the House of Hanover had guaranteed the Protestant succession and cemented the Glorious Revolution against the forces of Papistry and the French, as well as putting down the rebellious Irish and Scots.

    That’s only my opinion, mind ;-)

    Besides, “Messiah” was premiered in Ireland, on 13 April 1742 “as part of a series of charity concerts in Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street near Dublin’s Temple Bar district” (from the Wikipedia article). Being a smash-hit over here meant he felt more secure about its success when transferring it to London – interesting to think that if it had failed when first put on, it might never have achieved its popularity.

    So you can blame/thank the Irish for it, as inclined!

  • Dave

    Mollie, thanks for this piece. I’d heard Marissen’s ideas somewhere (lost in the mists of memory) but never knew there was a contrary scholarly view.

  • Jerry

    It begins with an anecdote about a Christan man who, when a boy, felt that the he understood heaven after hearing the “Hallelujah” chorus.

    That is an echo of Handel’s state while he was writing the work. To me, this popularity and meaning for so many is a sign of a Divinely inspired work:

    Handel never left his house for those three weeks. A friend who visited him as he composed found him sobbing with intense emotions. Later, as Handel groped for words to describe what he had experienced, he quoted St. Paul, saying “whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not”

    It’s easy to find someone to quote who has a negative opinion of absolutely everything – they are on every street corner. That the media picks some of these people to feature is also totally not a surprise. People can judge for themselves and look at the libretto with Biblical references for every line


    I’d like to wish all Christians a Merry Christmas in remembrance of the descent of God’s Light into earthly form so that Divine Truth might shine upon all awakening men and women to God’s central message which is expressed in the Bible thusly:

    Jesus said unto him,
    Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
    and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
    This is the first and great commandment.
    And the second is like unto it,
    Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
    On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets

  • Chris Bolinger

    I’ve yet to understand why an Easter oratorio is associated with the season during which Jesus’ birth is celebrated

    The AP piece should help.

    The oratorio is in three parts: the first tells about Jesus’ birth, the second about his suffering and the destruction of his enemies, and the third about the promise of eternal life through Jesus.

    Most choirs do only Part I (plus the Halleluia Chorus) at Christmastime. Part III is the best, but unfortunately you don’t get to hear it performed very often.

    It’s too bad that the D.C.-area Asaph Ensemble isn’t around anymore, Mollie. Back in the 1990s, we used to do two performances of Part I (plus the Halleluia Chorus) with choreographed ballet at Constitution Hall every December. It offered a nice respite for those who have to endure the non-stop politics of that region.

    Merry Christmas to you and the rest of the GR crew. Thanks for doing a great blog.

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  • Julia

    I just got home from singing a really great Midnight Mass with 12 instrumentalists, including brass and timpani. We did the recitative about the angels anouncing to the shepards, “Glory to God” (what the angels were signing) and “And the Glory”.

    At Lent we do some of Part II and we do Part III at Easter.

    Nobody I know, have heard or have read has ever suggested that the Messiah is anti-Jewish. It never occurred to me the words were about the Jews. There are also hymns we sing at Mass sometimes that include reference to God “breaking hearts of stone”, but they aren’t directed at Jews – they are referencing faithless Christians. Of course, the Jews don’t believe the Messiah has come, but disagreeing about that doesn’t make the disagreement anti-Jewish.

  • Tom

    Thanks very much for this, as Marissen’s take on the Hallelujah Chorus was new to me. I used this as a springboard for some thoughts of my own on the subject: