It’s been quite a year for Wendy Heller, associate professor of music at Princeton.
Last fall, she left for Harvard’s Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy, where she’s been writing a book on 17th-century Italian opera.
Then, in April, she came back to Princeton to host Princeton’s first American Handel Festival. The gathering included lectures on and performances of the German composer’s works, but also something unexpected: an academic debate that moved from the ivory tower to the mainstream media.
The dustup began with Swarthmore College music scholar Michael Marissen. In an Easter Sunday article in The New York Times, he posited that Handel’s Messiah, the iconic masterpiece on the birth and resurrection of Christ, is actually an anti-Judaic work celebrating the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 A.D.
At the festival, the debate continued, as Heller and British Handel scholar Ruth Smith sparred with Marissen during a panel discussion.
“All of us would agree that a certain degree of anti-Judaism was fundamental to Handel’s times,” says Heller, now back in Italy. “But methodologically, [Marissen’s] argument doesn’t hold water.” In short, Heller disputes Marissen’s claim that Handel used certain notes to represent Jews, calling such constructs “generic” throughout Handel’s music. Heller also disagrees that the drums and trumpets of the “Hallelujah” chorus are a triumphal repudiation of Judaism.
Heller felt compelled to respond to Marissen’s piece on the Times’ Web site on April 23. But she says the mass media are not the place for such debate.
“It’s one thing to debate this in the academy,” says Heller. “But once it goes out in a place like The New York Times, everything changes. Next, schools will be saying they can’t singMessiah because it’s anti-Semitic.”
“I’m Jewish, and singing Messiah is one of the great joys of any singer,” says Heller, a voice major in college. “I’d hate to think this hypothesis would stop anyone, Jew or non-Jew, from taking pleasure in this music. We can, and should, sing this music with a clear conscience.”