Music Scholar Michael Marissen Explores Anti-Semitic Undertones of Handel's Messiah in New Book

By Sam Cleaves '14
Michael Marissen
Michael Marissen (photo by Sigrid Estrada)

Seven years after arguing that the "Hallelujah" chorus of George Frideric Handel's Messiah contained anti-Semitic undertones, Daniel Underhill Professor of Music Michael Marissen goes in-depth on the topic in a new book titled Tainted Glory in Handel's Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World's Most Beloved Choral Work.

Marissen, who has previously explored anti-Semitic themes in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, first proclaimed his observations on "Hallelujah" in a 2007 article that appeared in the New York Times'  Easter Sunday edition. That article sparked intense reactions from multiple audiences - including Christians and Handel fans - and prompted Marissen to delve deeper into the subject with the book.

"There's this fantastic certainty that Messiah projects regarding the dashing to pieces of God's enemies, including the Jews," Marissen says in a recent interview in Publishers Weekly. "The question I asked in that column - What is the line between triumphalism and the joy of triumph? - became the center of this book."

Upon the book's release, Marissen also authored an article for The Huffington Post.

In Publishers Weekly, Marissen talks about the reaction to the initial Times' piece, how his research changed his view of Handel's work, and the insights he would like the audience to take away from the book.

He also describes the "detective work" that went into discovering these issues with The Messiah.

"It became clear to me that Charles Jennens (Handel's friend who created the libretto for The Messiah) was as worried about Deism [the belief that God had simply created the cosmos and left it to run on its own], which he believed threatened Christianity," Marissen says. "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." Read the full Q&A 

In his Huffington Post piece, "Handel's Messiah: See No Evil, Hear No Evil?", he illuminates what he describes as "disturbing issues" and "the anti-Jewish and Christian triumphalism lurking within the world's favorite Christmas (and Easter) piece."

"Messiah's many excellent and godly aspects will rightly ever continue to aesthetically and spiritually sustain my fellow Handel lovers," he says. "But the notion that beauty or love trumps all may really be too good to be true." Read the full Huffington Post article

Marissen joined the Swarthmore faculty in 1989 and teaches courses on medieval, Renaissance, baroque, classical European music; Bach; Mozart; and the string quartet. He is also the author of Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion.