“Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”


8 April 2007, 12.22 CET

From an article in today’s New York Times:

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.

The article fails to mention (or barely mentions) that in part the intent of Jennens’s libretto is to serve as a warning to Christians/Europeans of the consequences from failing to acknowledge the Christian messiah.

It is brilliant music. And if we chucked out every opera for which we could find some politically correct fault with the libretto there would be rather few to watch or listen to. Nonetheless it is important to learn about the history and complexities of this music, even if only to more fully engage with the work on its own terms, but from our own perspective.

[Update: I believe this to be an incorrect reading of the libretto and a false assertion. If you examine the libretto, specifically #40-44, the “them” refers to kings: “[t]he kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed.” Furthermore the phrase in question, “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,” is a quotation from Psalms 2:9.

Marissen acknowledges this in his article and while he likely knows much more about Jennens than I do I believe that his reading is a bit overstretched in order to fit his polemic. Nonetheless, the primary reason we know the libretto at all is because of Handel’s brilliant music. Regarding that I highly recommend Stefan Zweig’s account of Handel’s composition.]