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Publication Date

Spring 2007

Published In

Journal Of Musicology


Scholars have too little investigated questions of religious meaning in Handel's Messiah, particularly the work's manifest theological anti-Judaism. Previously unknown historical sources for the work's libretto compiled and arranged by Charles Jennens (1700–73) reveal the text's implicit designs against Jewish religion. Handel's musical setting powerfully underscores these tendencies of Jennens's libretto and adds to them, reaching a euphoric climax in the Hallelujah chorus. Within its arrangement of juxtaposed Old Testament prophecies and their New Testament fulfillment and with its matching musical styles, Handel's Messiah could hardly have expressed more powerfully its rejoicing against Judaism than by having the ferocious tenor aria “THOU [Jesus] shalt break THEM [the Jews] with a rod of iron” answered by the chorus “Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” The aria is a setting of Psalm 2:9, a passage that was generally and unquestioningly believed among Christians in Handel's day to have foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the year 70. This horrible event was construed as a divine punishment of Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God's promised messiah. The Hallelujah chorus apparently sees cause for rejoicing in such vengeance. Further, this chorus quotes the melodies of several hymns whose texts concern the depiction in Matthew 25 of acceptance by a bridegroom of five wise virgins and his rejection of five foolish virgins. This parable was taken to symbolize the welcoming of Ecclesia, Christianity and Jesus as the messiah, and the rejection of Synagoga and Judaism. In 18th-century England most Christians fervently believed that a choice between Judaism and Christianity was a choice between eternal damnation and eternal salvation. This would have represented motivation indeed for Messiah to project Christian theological contempt for its sibling religion.


This work is freely available courtesy of University of California Press.

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