Thursday, April 17, 2014

My Two Cents on the Unsettling History of Handel's "Messiah"

Michael Marissen, a Calvin College and Brandeis University graduate, and an author/professor of music and religion, has some qualms with the origins of Handel's Messiah, namely that the context of its creation (and, therefore, its content and delivery) smacks of Christian triumphalism over Judaism.

This controversial short-form essay was originally released in the spring of 2007, and it quickly garnered heated discussions (with some good rebuttals) at a panel later that month, which the New York Times covers here. It seems any doubts or constructive criticism relayed to Marissen did not deter him, as he plans to release the monograph, using some of the same arguably refuted theses, as he recently wrote in the Huffington Post.

His arguments are musical (that Handel chose certain musical elements when putting Scripture about Israel to music), lyrical (that the librettist Charles Jennens chose certain Scriptural passages for emphasis) and, inevitably, theological (general interpretation of certain passages of Scripture, Marissen also assumes limited atonement). It's a complicated debate involving history, theology and composer intent, and I'm not sure that I can jump into this arena of musical apologetics.

As a pastor who studied theology and music composition, and as someone who has had some experience studying and singing Handel's over-played Messiah in very "Christian contexts," I can personally say the notion of Christian triumphalism over Judaism never crossed my mind.

This was true during the movement of Messiah that quotes Psalm 22:8 (I went on to write an orchestral work on Psalm 22). In the context of Jesus being beaten before his crucifixion, unlike what Marissen argues, I only thought of myself and my sinful being as the "enemy," torturing Jesus and hauling him toward that cross. And when I sing the seemingly culminating movements of the Messiah (Behold the Lamb of God, Hallelujah, Worthy is the Lamb), I celebrate Christ's victory over my sin and his authority over all things, especially death. Also, given the charity and worship that surrounded Messiah's conception, I highly doubt Scripture (which referred to death and sin of all humanity as the enemy) was twisted to make what Marissen calls an "us-vs.-them" mentality. It's certainly not the case now, where I've seen Messiah performed.

Because an "us-vs.-them" mentality is not what Easter (or Christmas) is really about.