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Georg Fredric Handel’s “Messiah”

“The resurrected Jesus, sitting at the right hand of God, unleashed his anger on the Jews by having the Roman armies lay waste to Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70.”

Music Georg Fredric Handel / Libretto Charles Jennens (bottom)

Unsettling History of That Joyous ‘Hallelujah’

Published: April 8, 2007 in the New York Times

IN New York and elsewhere a “Messiah Sing-In” — a performance of Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” with the audience joining in the choruses — is a musical highlight of the Christmas season. Christians, Jews and others come together to delight in one of the consummate masterpieces of Western music.

The high point, inevitably, is the “Hallelujah” chorus, all too familiar from its use in strange surroundings, from Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, Part 1,” where it signified the origins of music among cavemen, to television advertising for behemoth all-terrain vehicles.

So “Messiah” lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the “Hallelujah” chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel’s day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God’s promised Messiah.

While Handel scholars and enthusiasts say repeatedly that significant numbers of Jews attended the original performances of Handel’s oratorios, they offer no compelling evidence. Most Jews in 18th-century London were too poor to attend such concerts, and observant Jews would in any event have balked at the public use of the sacred, unutterable name of God in the oratorios, even though “Jehovah” was a Christian misunderstanding of the prohibited name.

Handelians often assert too that the composer’s practice of writing oratorios on ancient Israelite subjects (like “Israel in Egypt” and “Judas Maccabaeus”) is pro-Jewish. Handel and his contemporaries did have a high opinion of the characters populating the Hebrew Bible, not as “Jews” but as proto-Christian believers in God’s expected Messiah, Jesus.

But what about their stance toward living Jews and toward Judaism after the advent of Jesus? Relevant contemporary British sources have virtually nothing positive to say on that subject and very little that is even neutral.

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The cover of a treatise by the Anglican bishop Richard Kidder // “
 Kidder’s work reads like a blueprint for “Messiah.””

Image from the score of ‘Messiah’ autograph composition draft, 'Amen Chorus'
Actual Page From Original

To create the “Messiah” libretto Charles Jennens, a formidable scholar and a friend of Handel’s, compiled a series of scriptural passages adapted from the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible. As a traditionalist Christian, Jennens was deeply troubled by the spread of deism, the notion that God had simply created the cosmos and let it run its course without divine intervention. Christianity then as now rested on the belief that God broke into history by taking human form in Jesus. For Jennens and others, deism represented a serious menace.

Deists argued that Jesus was neither the son of God nor the Messiah. Since Christian writers had habitually considered Jews the most grievous enemies of their religion, they came to suppose that deists obtained anti-Christian ammunition from rabbinical scholars. The Anglican bishop Richard Kidder, for example, claimed in his huge 1690s treatise on Jesus as the Messiah that “the deists among us, who would run down our revealed religion, are but underworkmen to the Jews.”

Kidder’s title says it all: “A Demonstration of the Messias, In Which the Truth of the Christian Religion Is Proved, Against All the Enemies Thereof; but Especially Against the Jews.” Jennens owned an edition from 1726, and he appears to have studied it carefully. Kidder’s work reads like a blueprint for “Messiah.”

Central to Kidder and his like-minded readers is a mode of interpretation called “typology,” which means that events in the Old Testament point to events in Christian history not only through explicit prophecy and fulfillment but also through the more mysterious implied spiritual anticipation of Christian “antitypes” in Old Testament “types.”

At Romans 5:14, for example, the Apostle Paul describes Adam as a “type” of “the one to come” (Jesus, the antitype).

Such thinking was the driving force behind Kidder’s book and Jennens’s choice and juxtaposition of texts in his libretto. In “Messiah” Old and New Testament selections stand fundamentally in a typological alignment.

Jennens had the discernment to see that he couldn’t thwart his adversaries simply by producing reading matter insisting that biblical texts be understood both typologically and as Jesus-centered. Like Arius, who won popular opinion for his views with catchy anti-orthodox jingles in the fourth century, Jennens resorted to music, approaching Handel with his libretto. What better means to comfort disquieted Christians against the faith-busting wiles of deists and Jews than to draw on the feelings and emotions of art over and above the reasons and revelations of argument?

“Messiah” does exactly this, culminating in the “Hallelujah” chorus. At Scene 6 in Part 2 the oratorio features passages from Psalm 2 of the Old Testament set as a series of antagonistic movements that precede excerpts from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation set as the triumphant “Hallelujah” chorus: type and antitype, prophecy and fulfillment.

The bass aria that opens Scene 6 asks, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?” But in the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the passage, Psalm 2:1, reads not “nations” but “heathen.” Why the difference, and where does it come from?

Jennens took his reading from Henry Hammond, the great 17th-century Anglican biblical scholar, whose extended and fiercely erudite commentary on Psalm 2 suggests the advantage of “nations” over “heathen”: “Nations” can readily include the Jews. In the 18th century no one would have uncritically used the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer’s word “heathen” for Jews or Judaism. Even children would have known this, from the famous hymn writer Isaac Watts’s wildly popular “Divine Songs for the Use of Children,” which includes the verse “Lord, I ascribe it to thy Grace, /And not to Chance, as others do, /That I was born of Christian race, /And not a Heathen or a Jew.”

Handel sets Psalm 2:1 as an aria drawing on the stile concitato (agitated style), with repeated 16th notes as a convention for violent affects to underline the raging of the nations, pointedly including the Jews. “The people,” when they “imagine a vain thing,” are further associated with a conspicuous violin line of oscillating pitches.

A similar melodic idea depicts the Jews in the earlier recitative “All they that see him laugh him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads.” The recitative sets Psalm 22:7, a text that can be understood (typologically) to foreshadow a New Testament passage, Matthew 27:39-40, which refers to Jewish pilgrims attending Passover and Jesus on the cross: “They that passed by, reviled him, wagging their heads.” The oscillating pattern and its scornful tone capture the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

Later in Scene 6, at the tenor aria, Jennens skips to Psalm 2:9, “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.” His excision of verses 5 through 8 makes the violent language in “Thou shalt break them” refer to the Jesus-rejecting Jews, because without the intervening verses, “them” refers to “the nations” (including the Jews) and “the people” (the Jews) of the bass aria, rather than the gentiles referred to in the missing Verse 8.

If Jews make up “them,” who is the “thou”? Jesus, as John Newton explains in his 1786 book “Messiah: Fifty Sermons on the Celebrated Oratorio of Handel”: The resurrected Jesus, sitting at the right hand of God, unleashed his anger on the Jews by having the Roman armies lay waste to Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70.

Newton is best known today as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and he is a central figure in the film of that name now in theaters, in which he is portrayed as repenting his devotion to the slave trade in the 1780s. But his grace apparently wasn’t amazing enough to curb the constant affirmation of anti-Jewish sentiment in his “Messiah” sermons.

Here he comments, “The music to which Psalm 2:9 is set is so well adapted to the idea that it expresses, as, in a manner, to startle those who hear it.” In Jennens and Handel’s time, Christians were all but unanimous in believing that the violence depicted in Psalm 2:9 represented the prophesying type for a later event: the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the fulfilling antitype. So when Jennens has brought in Psalm 2 and its understood prophecy of the destruction of the temple, widely understood as signaling God’s rejection of Judaism, what is the response? “Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth; the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Revelation 19:619:16 and 11:5). Jennens undoubtedly got the idea of juxtaposing these passages directly from Hammond, who wrote: “Now at Revelation 11 is fulfilled that prophecy of Psalm 2. The Jewish nation have behaved themselves most stubbornly against Christ, and cruelly against Christians, and God’s judgments are come upon them.” This is surely how listeners would have understood the combination of these texts in 18th-century Britain.

Handel’s music makes its own contribution to the troubling theological message here. The mood of the “Hallelujah” chorus is over-the-top triumph.

For the first time in “Messiah” trumpets and drums are used together, although they would have been appropriate or welcome at several earlier places. In Baroque music trumpets with drums were emblems of great power and of victory. In “Messiah” the combination is saved for celebrating the destruction of Jesus’ crucifixion-provoking “enemies” prefigured in Psalm 2.

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With Old Israel supposedly rejected by God and its obsolescence long before ensured, why did 18th-century writers and composers rejoice against Judaism at all, whether explicitly or, as here, implicitly? There must have been some festering Christian anxiety about the prolonged survival of Judaism: How could a “false” religion last so long? Might Judaism somehow actually be “true”?

These issues were a matter of life and death, says Jennens’s key guide, Kidder’s tome: “If we be wrong in dispute with the Jews, we err fundamentally, and must never hope for salvation. So that either we or the Jews must be in a state of damnation. Of such great importance are those matters in dispute between us and them.”

This would represent ample motivation for the text and musical setting of “Messiah” to engage these issues and would perhaps help explain any lapse from decent Christian gratitude into unseemly rejoicing in the “Hallelujah” chorus.

While still a timely, living masterpiece that may continue to bring spiritual and aesthetic sustenance to many music lovers, Christian or otherwise, “Messiah” also appears to be very much a work of its own era. Listeners might do well to ponder exactly what it means when, in keeping with tradition, they stand during the “Hallelujah” chorus.



Georg Friedrich Händel

A Sacred Oratorio
Words by Charles Jennens


1. Sinfonia (Overture)
2. Accompagnato

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40: 1-3)

3. Air

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry moutain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain. (Isaiah 40: 4)

4. Chorus

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 40: 5)

5. Accompagnato

Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land.
And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come. (Haggai 2: 6-7)

The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in; behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3: 1)

6. Air
Alto or soprano

But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire. (Malachi 3: 2)

7. Chorus

And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi 3: 3)

8. Recitative

Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us. (Isaiah 7: 14Matthew 1: 23)

9. Air and Chorus

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain. O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your god! (Isaiah 40: 9)

Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. (Isaiah 60: 1)

O thou that tellest. . . etc.

10. Accompagnato

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isaiah 60: 2-3)

11. Air

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (Isaiah 9: 2)

12. Chorus

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)

13. Pifa (“Pastoral Symphony”)
14a. Recitative

There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. (Luke 2: 8)

14b. Accompagnato

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
(Luke 2: 9)

15. Recitative

And the angel said unto them: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2: 10-11)

16. Accompagnato

And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying: (Luke 2: 13)

17. Chorus

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.” (Luke 2: 14)

18. Air

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is the righteous Saviour, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen. Rejoice greatly. . . da capo (Zecharaiah 9: 9-10)

19. Recitative

Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing. (Isaiah 35: 5-6)

20. Air (or Duet)
(Alto &) soprano

He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40: 11)

Come unto Him, all ye that labour, come unto Him that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11: 28-29)

21. Chorus

His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. (Matthew 11: 30)


22. Chorus
Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.
(John 1: 29)

23. Air
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
(Isaiah 53: 3)

He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.
He was despised. . . da capo (Isaiah 53: 6)

24. Chorus
Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows!
He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.
(Isaiah 53: 4-5)

25. Chorus
And with His stripes we are healed.
(Isaiah 53: 5)

26. Chorus
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53: 6)

27. Accompagnato
All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying:
(Psalm 22: 7)

28. Chorus
“He trusted in God that He would deliver Him; let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.”
(Psalm 22: 8)

29. Accompagnato
Thy rebuke hath broken His heart: He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort him.
(Psalm 69: 20)

30. Arioso
Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow.
(Lamentations 1: 12)

31. Accompagnato
Soprano or tenor
He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgressions of Thy people was He stricken.
(Isaiah 53: 8)

32. Air
Soprano or tenor
But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption.
(Psalm 16: 10)

33. Chorus
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, The Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.
(Psalm 24: 7-10)

34. Recitative
Unto which of the angels said He at any time: “Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee?”
(Hebrews 1: 5)

35. Chorus
Let all the angels of God worship Him.
(Hebrews 1: 6)

36. Air
Alto or soprano
Thou art gone up on high; Thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men; yea, even from Thine enemies, that the Lord God might dwell among them.
(Psalm 68: 18)

37. Chorus
The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the preachers.
(Psalm 68: 11)

38. Air (or « duet and Chorus »)
Soprano or alto (or soprano, alto and Chorus)
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.
(Isaiah 52: 7Romans 10: 15)

39. Chorus (or air for tenor)
Their sound is gone out into all lands,
and their words unto the ends of the world.
(Romans 10: 18Psalm 19: 4)

40. Air (or « Air and Recitative »)
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed.
(Psalm 2: 1-2)

41. Chorus
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us.
(Psalm 2: 3)

42. Recitative
He that dwelleth in Heav’n shall laugh them to scorn; The Lord shall have them in derision.
(Psalm 2: 4)

43. Air
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
(Psalm 2: 9)

44. Chorus
Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
(Revelation 19: 6)
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord,
and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever.
(Revelation 11: 15)
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
(Revelation 19: 16)


45. Air
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand
at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
(Job 19: 25-26)
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.
(I Corinthians 15: 20)

46. Chorus
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
(I Corinthians 15: 21-22)

47. Accompagnato
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
(I Corinthians 15: 51-52)

48. Air
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.
The trumpet. . . da capo
(I Corinthians 15: 52-53)

49. Recitative
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
(I Corinthians 15: 54)

50. Duet
Alto & tenor
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
(I Corinthians 15: 55-56)

51. Chorus
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(I Corinthians 15: 57)

52. Air
Soprano alto
If God be for us, who can be against us?
(Romans 8: 31)
Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.
(Romans 8: 33-34)

53. Chorus
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.
(Revelation 5: 12-14)