2017-08-11 17:18:34 UTC
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.