Discussion:
Was Handel's Messiah anti-Semitic?
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b***@gmail.com
2017-08-11 17:18:34 UTC
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In a couple of months' time I'm giving a talk on the background and music of this work. In the course of my research I came across an academic spat that reached the public arena, as these spats occasionally do when the subject is of enough general interest. In 2005 Tassilo Erhardt wrote a book, "Handel's "Messiah": Text, Musik, Theologie", in which he claimed that Jennens' compilation of biblical texts that served as Handel's libretto was conceived partly as a Christian defence against Judaism, taking as evidence supposed correspondences between the texts Jennens chose and those discussed by anti-Judaistic authors as contained in the partly known contents of his personal library. Two years later, Michael Marissen took this further in "Rejoicing against Judaism in Handel's Messiah", an article in the Journal of Musicology, claiming to have shown not only that the libretto was designed to teach contempt for Jews but that Handel's music specifically furthered this agenda.

So far so academic, but then Marissen wrote articles in this vein in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, and subsequently a book ("Tainted glory in Handel's Messiah: the unsettling history of the world's most beloved choral work"). The academic upshot was a symposium in which this thesis seems to have been demolished by Handel scholars including Ruth Smith. Unfortunately the thesis appears to have appeared as fact in several places without mention of its refutations.

Now, all you loyal Wagnerians will see the connection with our hero here, especially in the thread on the recent Bayreuth production of Die Meistershinger. A central aspect of the approach taken by Messrs Erhardt and Marrisen in the case of Handel, and Gutman, Weiner, Millington & Co in that of Wagner is that of crypto-anti-Semitism, which seems necessary for their respective theses to succeed. In neither Handel's case nor Wagner's is the supposed anti-Semitism overt in the text, although both parties claim that it is in the music. I have never come across a clear justification of such reticence in an environment where anti-Semitism (religious in early-mid 18th century England, and religious, then increasingly racial in mid-late 19th century Germany) was a normal part of both public and private discourse - but in any event it seems necessary to this thesis that the public should have understood these hidden references.

I'm no scholar, but I have never come across one word - I repeat, not so much as a single word - by any contemporary that recognises the works' supposed anti-Semitic message, much less hailing (or bewailing) it as a hammer-blow to that detestable religion or race, as the cap fits. Am I missing something?

And if I'm not, am I missing something else when I observe that, certainly in the case of the Messiah fracas, and to the best of my knowledge as regards Wagner, no scholar has raised this issue as perhaps the most decisive refutation of the "anti-Semitism hidden in plain sight" gambit? I always get twitchy when I think I'm the first to have spotted something. That blessed event has actually yet to occur!

And finally, if this contemporary silence is real, could there be any other explanations than either of these (incompatible) two:

1. The works in question do indeed contain covert anti-Semitic references, but their (often virulently) anti-Semitic audiences were too dense to decode them?

2. The works in question simply aren't anti-Semitic in the first place.
REP
2017-08-11 17:40:54 UTC
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Post by b***@gmail.com
In a couple of months' time I'm giving a talk on the background and music of this work. In the course of my research I came across an academic spat that reached the public arena, as these spats occasionally do when the subject is of enough general interest. In 2005 Tassilo Erhardt wrote a book, "Handel's "Messiah": Text, Musik, Theologie", in which he claimed that Jennens' compilation of biblical texts that served as Handel's libretto was conceived partly as a Christian defence against Judaism, taking as evidence supposed correspondences between the texts Jennens chose and those discussed by anti-Judaistic authors as contained in the partly known contents of his personal library.
Europe was generally anti-semitic for most of its history, just as the Arabic world was (and still is). From that, you can infer that everything those civilizations produced is anti-semitic, because its creations were born of an anti-semitic society; either the creator expressed anti-semitic thoughts at some point, or the creator benefited from anti-semitic institutions. Thus, everything is tainted with anti-semitism (which is defined by most scholars as anything, including mice and tupperware, that isn't explicitly kosher).

If you think you've identified something that a right-thinking scholar hasn't declared anti-semitic yet, just give it time. It will happen. Pretty soon there will be a scholarly article or book for every concept or creation known to man.

REP
m***@gmail.com
2017-08-12 18:19:29 UTC
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Post by b***@gmail.com
In a couple of months' time I'm giving a talk on the background and music of this work. In the course of my research I came across an academic spat that reached the public arena, as these spats occasionally do when the subject is of enough general interest. In 2005 Tassilo Erhardt wrote a book, "Handel's "Messiah": Text, Musik, Theologie", in which he claimed that Jennens' compilation of biblical texts that served as Handel's libretto was conceived partly as a Christian defence against Judaism, taking as evidence supposed correspondences between the texts Jennens chose and those discussed by anti-Judaistic authors as contained in the partly known contents of his personal library. Two years later, Michael Marissen took this further in "Rejoicing against Judaism in Handel's Messiah", an article in the Journal of Musicology, claiming to have shown not only that the libretto was designed to teach contempt for Jews but that Handel's music specifically furthered this agenda.
So far so academic, but then Marissen wrote articles in this vein in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, and subsequently a book ("Tainted glory in Handel's Messiah: the unsettling history of the world's most beloved choral work"). The academic upshot was a symposium in which this thesis seems to have been demolished by Handel scholars including Ruth Smith. Unfortunately the thesis appears to have appeared as fact in several places without mention of its refutations.
Now, all you loyal Wagnerians will see the connection with our hero here, especially in the thread on the recent Bayreuth production of Die Meistershinger. A central aspect of the approach taken by Messrs Erhardt and Marrisen in the case of Handel, and Gutman, Weiner, Millington & Co in that of Wagner is that of crypto-anti-Semitism, which seems necessary for their respective theses to succeed. In neither Handel's case nor Wagner's is the supposed anti-Semitism overt in the text, although both parties claim that it is in the music. I have never come across a clear justification of such reticence in an environment where anti-Semitism (religious in early-mid 18th century England, and religious, then increasingly racial in mid-late 19th century Germany) was a normal part of both public and private discourse - but in any event it seems necessary to this thesis that the public should have understood these hidden references.
I'm no scholar, but I have never come across one word - I repeat, not so much as a single word - by any contemporary that recognises the works' supposed anti-Semitic message, much less hailing (or bewailing) it as a hammer-blow to that detestable religion or race, as the cap fits. Am I missing something?
And if I'm not, am I missing something else when I observe that, certainly in the case of the Messiah fracas, and to the best of my knowledge as regards Wagner, no scholar has raised this issue as perhaps the most decisive refutation of the "anti-Semitism hidden in plain sight" gambit? I always get twitchy when I think I'm the first to have spotted something. That blessed event has actually yet to occur!
1. The works in question do indeed contain covert anti-Semitic references, but their (often virulently) anti-Semitic audiences were too dense to decode them?
2. The works in question simply aren't anti-Semitic in the first place.
How can music be anti-Semitic???
m***@gmail.com
2017-08-14 10:18:40 UTC
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How can music be anti-Semitic???
Well, it can't, of course. The only way it can be is by association with extra-musical anti-Semitic concepts. That's Marissen's argument.

Briefly, he says that Handel uses the alternating note figure to characterise Jews in "Messiah", always in unfavourable contexts. In the first aria, "Ev'ry valley", this figure is used for the text "the crook--ed straight" - i.e. the "crooked" Jews who reject Jesus as the Messiah shall be made "straight" Christians. The accompagnato "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people" is accompanied by such a figure, as is the following aria, "The peo--ple that walk--ed [in darkness]". The "people" here are obviously, in Marissen's reading, to be equated with the Jews. And in the rage aria "Why do the nations", the figure illustrates the text "why do the people imagine a vain thing?" Again, people here are equated with, among others, recalcitrant Jews. These are all readings of those texts that he says were their standard interpretations of the day. In "Why do the nations", he says that Jennens replaced the original word "heathen" with "nations" because the former could not include the Jews whereas the latter could.

Note that, if this figure is intended to be a musical caricature of any sort, it's pretty muted. It simply characterises Jews, as in "that music goes with Jews". (That's my reading of Marissen's reading.) In this, it differs from the perceived musical caricatures of Mime and Beckmesser, which detractors say are exaggerated, and therefore intended to portray these "Jewish" characters negatively.

Marissen doesn't, to the best of my knowledge, explain what that alternating-note figure is doing to accompany the texts "the first-fruits of them that sleep (i.e. Christians who have died in the Lord) in "I know that my Redeemer liveth", or "and we [i.e. Christians] shall be changed" in "The trumpet shall sound". If Handel meant that figure to characterise the Jews (negatively, in connection with the texts), then he's been incompetent enough to muddy the waters in Part III of his oratorio.

The other accusation by Marissen concerns the Hallelujah chorus, which he says is "over-the-top" rejoicing at the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 as God's punishment for the Jews' rejection of Jesus as the Messiah - at least, that's how Marissen claims the text from Revelation was usually seen in the England of Handel's time. This reading has been disputed, as have all the others, and the "over-the-top" argument is purely subjective. I might argue, by contrast, that the chorus is restrained, certainly tonally. It's no more than Handel's usual trick of saving his big guns for the big moments. If that's "over-the-top", I could with equal justification characterise the F minor tryptich of choruses beginning with "Surely he hath borne our griefs" as "wallowing in guilt and misery" - and I've never heard that done.

All of this is, of course, distressingly familiar to Wagnerians, who come up against exactly the same kind of "crypto-anti-Semitic" arguments regarding both the text and the music, based as it is on supposed tacit contemporary references. I'm still interested in answers to the questions in my OP - is there any evidence of contemporary reactions, in Handel's case or Wagner's ("Messiah" for Handel, Mime, Beckmesser and Klingsor for Wagner), reacting in any way to their supposed anti-Semitic subtexts? If there aren't, I would suggest that this silence speaks volumes about these arguments.

It should be pointed out that the purported anti-Semitism in Handel and Jennens' case should more accurately be called "anti-Judaistic", because it was primarily a religious affair. In Wagner's case, the argument would concern cultural Jewishness in the mid-19th century, which seemed to have morphed into a racial form towards the end of Wagner's lifetime.

Also, I'm Anselm - I'm not terribly good at this technology, so I unwittingly wound up posting under my daughter's account. Apologies.
Mike Scott Rohan
2017-08-14 13:28:23 UTC
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On Monday, August 14, 2017 at 11:18:41 AM UTC+1, ***@gmail.com wrote:


As you say, you can certainly "deduce" anti-semitism in the Messiah, simply because the Christian religion itself has inherent anti-semitic elements, and this aspect of its story in particular. Of course it didn't start that way, Christianity originally having been an exclusively Jewish sect with, understandably enough, a strong anti-Roman bias. But what seems to have happened, as I understand it, is that as the early Christians sought to gain acceptance within the Roman Empire, and no doubt defuse persecution, they had to play down their faith's associations with racial exclusivity and rebellion, and hence the element of Roman responsibility for Jesus's execution. The Romans became depicted as harsh but fair-minded bystanders. In the accounts of successive Gospels Pilate is shown as exonerating Jesus, and giving the Jewish people the chance to pardon him; they are shown as taking the responsibility. Given Roman distrust of Jews, after the continual rebellions which resulted in immense loss and expense to Rome and the near-depopulation of the region, this no doubt would have smoothed Christianity's path.

Anti-semitism was thus inherited from a very early stage, and so, quite naturally, remains an inherent part of the Messiah's narrative, which emerges from a culture still heavily anti-semitic. We tend to think of Handel's era as relatively civilized and tolerant, without overt persecution, and so it was; but Jews still had civil disabilities in Britain, though less, I think, than Handel's native Germany. But Jews were generally unpopular, scapegoated for the financial crash of the South Sea Bubble twenty years earlier, for example. I have seen a popular broadsheet on the point, with a woodcut showing outraged crowds drowning a Jew (no doubt foreign, probably Portuguese) in a pond; he is shouting "Me do it again!" Probably for Handel "the people who walked in darkness" would have included Jews.

But it's a long step from that to proving the existence of any encoded message, just as it is with Wagner. Admitting that does not remotely prove Handel bore them any violent enmity, or was at all concerned with them here. The subject of the Hallelujah chorus is quite enough to explain its dignified exultation without dragging in some external reference on no evidence at all. Can this man show the interpretation he alleges existed in any way meaningful enough to be shared by audiences?

It's significant that both these allegations gain currency in the field of music, which is not an especially wide field in scholarly terms and has less experience than most with the pernicious effects of supposed codes, between-the-lines deductions, and the like. Wheras literature has had to cope with the Shakespeare/Bacon codes and similar crap, and science and history with Victorian pyramidology, fake Mayan alphabets and so on.* So msuical scholars haven't learned to ask the major first question in any such case, which is why would any such thing need to be encoded? Anti-semitism was perfectly respectable in Handel's time, and if a musical rant might have seemed a little ungentlemanly, a measured but specific allusion would have been perfectly in order. Likewise Wagner was not exactly given to hiding his bigotry under a bushel, which is why he's in this trouble in the first place. Why would either conceal anything at all, let alone in such an arcane manner that only some ingenious scholar could dig it up?

This isn't the sort of thing that can be proven by mere circumstantial evidence, especially as vague as this. If it's supposed to be a subjective code, be it that two-note figure, the reference to the fall of Jerusalem, or the anti-semitic song supposedly concealed in Beckmesser's , then there has to be evidence of a) intention and b) interpretation, especially contemporary. In other words, as you very perceptively point out, if nobody can be shown to have noticed the cryptogram or whatever before you, in however many centuries, you're very probably out the window altogether. It simply is not permissible, safe or even sane to accept such a serious allegation on such slender grounds. But, that being so, it *is* safe to call it utter rubbish.

In fact, these allegations read so much like a parody of the Wagner allegations that I almost wonder if it wasn't this man's intention in the first place, to demonstrate how easy it is to formulate such a charge out of the air, thin or hot. Certainly if he is serious he's achieved only the remarkable feat of parodying himself.

Cheers,

Mike



*(Not that any of these fields are entirely immune, having lately suffered from addiction to unprofessional "deductions" based on Freudianism, genetics, Da Vinci decoder rings and the like; but these are rather more sophisticated that mere Dan Brown-level cypherss.)
m***@gmail.com
2017-08-14 18:23:28 UTC
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Post by Mike Scott Rohan
In fact, these allegations read so much like a parody of the Wagner allegations that I almost wonder if it wasn't this man's intention in the first place, to demonstrate how easy it is to formulate such a charge out of the air, thin or hot. Certainly if he is serious he's achieved only the remarkable feat of parodying himself.
Thanks for the thought-provoking reply. To give Marissen his due, I don't have the space to go over his argument in detail, so if you're interested, you'd be better. The title of Tassilo Erhardt's 2005 doctoral thesis is "A most excellent subject: Handel's Messiah in the light of Charles Jennens' theological library" (original title in German). Marissen was one of his examiners and subsequently expanded on the basic idea, which was to see what the contents of Jennens' extensive library, insofar as it could be determined by the sale catalogue drawn up in 1918 preparatory to the breakup of his estate at Gopsall and the demolition of his magnificent neo-Palladian mansion (weeps bitter tears), could reveal about his intentions in compiling the biblical texts that constitute the libretto of "Messiah". He concluded that those intentions included (i.e. was by no means restricted to) the propagation of an anti-Judaistic message.

Marissen ran with that. He's apparently no slouch as a musicologist, having written a lot on the related subject of the meaning of Bach's vocal works. I don't think either of them are talking about an actual CRYPTO-anti-Semitism, in which Jennens deliberately encoded his message in an apparently innocuous text. What they seem to be saying - and attempting to demonstrate at length, which is where a brief summary like mine is entirely inadequate - is that the work's two creators intended both the text and the music of "Messiah" to serve a variety of functions, of which anti-Judaism is only one - albeit a prominent one, in their view. What is contentious is Erhardt's and Marissen's attempts to show that Jennens' choices of certain texts, and to a lesser extent Handel's musical decisions, were both informed by, and intended to further, an anti-Judaism that, as well as being popular, had been thoroughly worked out as an ideology by theologians of the day. Your observation about the former is perfectly true, and is highlighted by fate of the Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753, which allowed foreign-born Jews to become naturalised British citizens. A public outcry forced its repeal the very next year. It's the latter that more concern Messrs Erhardt and Marissen.

I've followed this spat reasonably closely, and I have to say that no other leading Handel scholar seems to have been convinced. They have attracted detailed rebuttals from, among other people, Ruth Smith, one of the current generation's leading Handel experts. These responses show that the arguments are tendentious, the choice of evidence highly selective and the facts are unable to sustain the argument without special pleading. Unfortunately, Wagner's detractors on this score seem to have got a lot further, having carved out a small but significant niche for themselves in academia.

The public impact of this stuff can be highly damaging, of course. Very few people are going to follow this debate. They're just going to read Marissen's NYT article, react with shocked disbelief at this horrific revelation about the world's best-known oratorio and best-loved chorus, and swear off "Messiah" (and possibly Handel) for good. That's all most people will "know" about the whole affair. It's saddening to read the outraged letters to the editor in this vein in response to Marissen's article. And if that's the case in this highly circumscribed instance, how much worse is it for Wagner! The whole debate regarding him seems to have been hijacked by post-war reactions to Hitler. I've come across two references, one that says that Wagner's anti-Semitism wasn't worth mentioning in his own day, the other that claims that Wagner's Francophobia, not his anti-Semitism, caused the real offence in the late 19th century. I'd love to see these passing references fleshed out.
m***@gmail.com
2017-08-14 18:25:09 UTC
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...to go over his argument in detail, so if you're interested, you'll need to do the appropriate Googling, including on Google Scholar.
Apologies
Mike Scott Rohan
2017-08-21 17:32:11 UTC
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Post by m***@gmail.com
...to go over his argument in detail, so if you're interested, you'll need to do the appropriate Googling, including on Google Scholar.
Apologies
Yes, one should certainly read the whole thing in full to judge it. But on the other hand, life is short; and even if his thesis were more fully proven, what would it reveal? At worst, that a Christian work of that era has some minor anti-semitic elements in it? Hardly earth-shaking. Hardly, in fact, productive of more than a mild headshake, before passing on by. And since it seems equally impossible to prove or disprove -- a notable characteristic of these purported hidden cyphers -- how justified are we in even bothering with it?

It seems chiefly designed to attract attention, and that's what I feel most inclined to deny it. But it's interesting to know about in a Wagnerian context, and thank you. What do you think they'll decode next?

Cheers,

Mike
m***@gmail.com
2017-08-21 19:44:52 UTC
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Post by Mike Scott Rohan
Post by m***@gmail.com
...to go over his argument in detail, so if you're interested, you'll need to do the appropriate Googling, including on Google Scholar.
Apologies
Yes, one should certainly read the whole thing in full to judge it. But on the other hand, life is short; and even if his thesis were more fully proven, what would it reveal? At worst, that a Christian work of that era has some minor anti-semitic elements in it? Hardly earth-shaking. Hardly, in fact, productive of more than a mild headshake, before passing on by. And since it seems equally impossible to prove or disprove -- a notable characteristic of these purported hidden cyphers -- how justified are we in even bothering with it?
It seems chiefly designed to attract attention, and that's what I feel most inclined to deny it. But it's interesting to know about in a Wagnerian context, and thank you. What do you think they'll decode next?
Cheers,
Mike
Oh I think we'll have a 3 CD set - "Decoding the Anti-Semitism in Wagners Ring" with recorded examples from various recordings and accompanying text.
Mike Scott Rohan
2017-08-22 13:13:27 UTC
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Post by m***@gmail.com
Oh I think we'll have a 3 CD set - "Decoding the Anti-Semitism in Wagners Ring" with recorded examples from various recordings and accompanying text.
God, what an idea! It could be a marvellous hoax, especially if it attracted po-faced comments from a certain kind of Wagner-baiter. Like a physicist friend of mine who concocted and published a beautifully judged pseudo-Victorian account of an attempted "alien encounter", which got greeted with great excitement by all the flying saucer and von Daniken nutcases, including one notorious US writer (whom I won't name because he's very litigious). The only person who came near to sussing it eventually was Jacques Vallee, model for the Francois Truffaut character in Close Encounters, and he was amazingly humourless about it. I can just imagine getting the same reaction from some flat-earth Wagner commentators.

But alas, it would probably be accused of being anti-semitic itself. Thanks for the image, though!

Cheers,

Mike

Maybe we could persuade that noisy anti-Wagnerian John Eliot Gardiner to conduct the examples...
m***@gmail.com
2017-08-22 14:27:01 UTC
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Post by Mike Scott Rohan
Maybe we could persuade that noisy anti-Wagnerian John Eliot Gardiner to conduct the examples...
Speaking of which, why is JEG anti-Wagner? I've seen two accounts. One is on purely musical grounds: I heard him in an interview say that Wagner's inner parts (no, I'm talking about the music here!) are lifeless, everything being constrained by a deadening homophonic style, as opposed to Brahms. The other, which I think I came across in print somewhere, was that Wagner wasn't a nice chap. Any advances on this lot?
REP
2017-08-22 20:31:55 UTC
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Post by m***@gmail.com
Post by Mike Scott Rohan
Maybe we could persuade that noisy anti-Wagnerian John Eliot Gardiner to conduct the examples...
Speaking of which, why is JEG anti-Wagner? I've seen two accounts. One is on purely musical grounds: I heard him in an interview say that Wagner's inner parts (no, I'm talking about the music here!) are lifeless, everything being constrained by a deadening homophonic style, as opposed to Brahms.
I don't think you can have a post-Baroque opera with consistently great inner-part writing that also succeeds as an opera, but surely Die Meistersinger comes the closest. The overture alone is proof positive that Wagner was a master of the craft. And there are long stretches (Pogner's address to the Meistersingers in Act I, for example) that are worthy of Bach.

In general, though, you need counterpoint to enliven inner voices, and counterpoint is antithetical to Romantic opera. Most opera composers avoided it altogether, with Wagner being something of an exception. If he wrote in a "deadening homophonic style," then where does that leave Verdi, Donizetti, and Puccini?

REP

P.S. One of my favorite instances of Wagner's inner part-writing is the Wounded Tristan/Tantris motif. There, the tenor voice rises chromatically against the descending soprano until all the voices collide, with a major second between the tenor and alto voices and a major ninth between the tenor and bass. The resulting harmony is very striking when played at the piano.
Mike Scott Rohan
2017-08-23 16:57:17 UTC
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Post by m***@gmail.com
Speaking of which, why is JEG anti-Wagner? I've seen two accounts. One is on purely musical grounds: I heard him in an interview say that Wagner's inner parts (no, I'm talking about the music here!) are lifeless, everything being constrained by a deadening homophonic style, as opposed to Brahms. The other, which I think I came across in print somewhere, was that Wagner wasn't a nice chap. Any advances on this lot?
He says lots of things, in my experience never the same thing twice, and never much more sensible than before. He claims to find Brahms's music superior, which is odd, because he's a pretty good Berlioz conductor and very good with Schumann as well, obviously loves and understands both, and they both have much more in common with Wagner, including the dramatic instinct and harmonic adventurousness, rather than the backward-looking Brahms.

He's well known as a grump in the profession, according to some performers much worse than that, so his anti-Wagner stance may just be another affectation to display his superiority to mere popular taste (as he sees it) and to annoy people. Given what I hear of his own character, any objection to Wagner's could be seen as mere rivalry!

Cheers,

Mike

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