Music: Damian Thompson

By Thompson, Damian | The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Music: Damian Thompson


Thompson, Damian, The Spectator


The Hallelujah Chorus crops up in the most unexpected places, says Michael Marissen in his new book about Handel's Messiah . For example, it's used in a TV ad 'depicting frantic bears' ecstatic relief in chancing upon Charmin toilet paper in the woods'.

That's an amusing detail: it lingers in the mind. But, as you can work out from the title, Tainted Glory in Handel's Messiah isn't intended to be a fun read. Marissen, an American specialist in baroque music, has been taking a long, hard look at the oratorio's libretto, adapted from the Old and New Testaments by Charles Jennens, a gentleman scholar. He has uncovered a disturbing subtext -- 'hateful sentiments' directed against Jews that are masked by the magnificence of the score. And he thinks this should make Christian audiences (his own background is Dutch Calvinist) feel uncomfortable.

Let me try to sum up his argument. Messiah famously leaps between the Gospels and the Hebrew Bible, as we are now supposed to call the Old Testament. Consider its first words: the recitative 'Comfort ye' leading into the aria 'Ev'ry Valley Shall Be Exalted', exquisitely decorated by the tenor Charles Daniels in McCreesh's recording with the Gabrieli Consort. The words are from Isaiah 40:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, said your God; speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her Warfare is accomplished, that her Iniquity is pardon'd.

For Jews, 'ye my people' refers to the prophets or perhaps the priests of Israel. For Jennens, and indeed for most 18th-century Protestants, the verse was addressed prophetically to Christians who have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, who forgives them their iniquity. The book lists many examples of such impertinence. The choir sings 'And He shall purify the Sons of Levi' (Malachi 3:3). That sounds innocuous enough, but Marissen suspects that Messiah is referring to the 'purification' (i.e., destruction) of the Temple by the Romans in AD 70: a vengeance visited on the Jews by Jesus for their failure to acknowledge Him. And perhaps it also signals the end of the 'impure' carnal sacrifices of the Temple.

Then consider the words from Psalm 2, 'Why do the nations so furiously rage together...?', roared out by the bass soloist above wildly surging strings. Most old versions of the Bible use the word 'heathen' rather than 'nations'. Marissen reckons that 'heathen' is easier to sing -- so why did Jennens choose an alternative translation? …

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