Wow. We didn’t know. The “Hallelujah Chorus” is a paean celebrating Titus’ sack of Jerusalem and the Christian’s God’s bloody vengeance upon the Jews. That was the New York Times’ Easter Sunday gift to its readers, courtesy of Swarthmore professor Michael Marissen.
Marissen is making a career of arguing for the extra-musical purposes of eighteenth-century works. In his dissertation (published as The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos), he argues that Bach, in his concertos, encrypts Lutheran messages of the eventual reversal of political subservience in the afterlife (we may be prince or peasant here, but in heaven we’re all equal). Although controversial (one reviewer called his readings stimulating but irritating; I simply think they’re fevered), Marissen’s analysis has found enthusiasts among the postmodern types, and he has gone on to write about anti-Judaism in the St. John Passion (he acquits Bach of the charge) as well as to edit several volumes on Bach. The Times apparently tapped Marissen for the Easter essay because of his imminent work on Handel’s Messiah and “Christian triumphalism.”
Undoubtedly Marissen will expand his argument about the “Hallelujah Chorus” in his new book, but in the newspaper version it goes something like this: Charles Jennens, who cobbled together the oratorio’s libretto, intended the work as an anti-deist and anti-Jewish polemic. In the oratorio’s second section, Jennens substituted “nations” for “heathens” in Psalm 2:1, so as to include the Jews among those who “imagine a vain thing” by taking counsel “against the Lord and his anointed.” Thus the arrival of the “Hallelujah Chorus” that closes the section is, in fact, an “over the top” celebration of God’s judgment on the JewsHandel’s addition of martial trumpets and drums underscoring the militaristic vision of divine pillage.
Marissen argues that here Jennens follows a tradition going back to Richard Kidder (d. 1703), the bishop of Bath and Wells, and continued by sermons John Newton published on “the Celebrated Oratorio of Handel” in 1786. The relation between these texts and the destruction of Jerusalem was so traditional in Handel’s time that it was “surely how listeners would have understood the combination of these texts in eighteenth-century Britain.”
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.”
Ah, that “Defender of the Faith” business. The Protestant Faith, of course. It’s hardly news that the English saw themselves as Israel’s heirs. They were a new chosen people whose election had been confirmed by the “holy wind” that sank the Spanish Armada and the much more recent defeat of the Catholic-backed Scots at the 1746 Battle of Culloden (an event which Handel celebrated with his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus). English Protestants were the new Israelites (look at all those “Salems” they founded in North America).
They were Christians who believed that the Old Testament could only be understood properly when read through the saving work of Christand Christians who believed that those who didn’t read the Old Testament that way were endangering their immortal souls with hellfire. (It’s not particularly insightful to notice that this caused tension among the church, the synagogue, and the chattering philosophers.)
Marissen’s is a very odd article. The most important aspect of the “Hallelujah Chorus” that one might think a scholar would want modern listeners to know about to help them understand the piece is ignored while a controversial interpretation of pretty-well-known truisms is headlined. What gives?
This Lent we have seen the Discovery Channel airing a documentary about the “Lost Tomb of Jesus,” a New York confectioner making a life-sized Jesus out of chocolate, Newsweek boldly asking “Is God Real?,” and the New York Times discussing both theism as the outgrowth of brain architecture (subscription required) and the myth of the Exodus. The History Channel graced Easter Sunday night with “Banned from the Bible,” two hours about all that nifty stuff that was “deemed unfit to grace the pages of the sacred scriptures for Jews and Christians . . . heresy or hidden truth?”
The many-branched assault on the fabric of Christendom, which appears to go into overdrive around Christmas and Easter, has hardly passed unnoted in First Things. Marissen’s piece on the “Hallelujah Chorus” is simply the New York Times’ Easter-morning sortie. And, as in the case of other raids, the subtext of Marissen’s piece, within the context of the Times’ other writings, is that traditional Christianity is malicious and hateful. Handel, his librettists, and their ilk espouse a “troubling” theology with an “unseemly” delight in violence directed toward Jews. The attitude of moderns to them and their work should be a degree of respect for their aesthetic achievement mingled with profound moral shame. Unschooled to see the holes in Marissen’s research and the fatuousness of his writing, a good number of Christians found, I expect, their Easter dinners soured by his essay.
But there is one final twist to this story. Marissen is a graduate of Calvin Collegeand, as we might expect from someone trained at Calvin, his analyses have generally shown a sympathy for traditional Christian viewpoints. That kind of sympathy doesn’t seem to be here in this Easter Sunday essay, replaced by a gotcha! superciliousness. The Swarthmore paper reports that Marissen is deeply interested in religion and attends both a Methodist church and a synagogue. Perhaps he has outgrown the narrow horizons of his Michigan training and branched out in Pennsylvania. The New York Times loves that kind of growth. When it comes to Supreme Court justices, the paper calls it “maturing on the Court.”
Still, I wonder what they think of their alumnus’ Easter gift back at Calvin?
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.