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Angela Tilby: Handel had blind spots, as have we

05 February 2021


An engraving of Handel, dated 1833

An engraving of Handel, dated 1833

IN A normal year, this would be the time when choirs would be dusting off their copies of Handel’s Messiah for performance during Holy Week and Easter. But there is a potential cloud over Handel’s reputation, as I discovered last week from the chief music critic of The Times, Richard Morrison. Handel, like many of his contemporaries, invested in the slave trade. Morrison raised the question whether Handel’s name should be one of those to be erased from history.

Like so many, I have always loved Messiah. Its emotional directness and energy is electrifying, whether in a vast concert hall with massive choir or in a quiet church with a small pipe organ and trembling soloist. When I was at Christ Church, Oxford, I had a public conversation with Michael Lloyd, the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, who has a long personal fascination with Handel and his work. He believes that Messiah was composed in part to counter Deism, the belief that God does not intervene in history.

Handel’s oratorio was focused on the prophecies of Christ’s birth and suffering in Isaiah, and on the final triumph so joyfully expressed in the “Hallelujah Chorus”. His libretto was, in other words, a summary of credal Christianity: the good news of Christ’s coming, suffering, and death, and our redemption in time.

Dr Lloyd also explained how Handel’s music was an expression of his genuine sympathy for the oppressed. He was a generous man, a benefactor of various charities, including one for abandoned children. His sympathy for the suffering is evident in his music. In the course of our conversation, we listened to Kathleen Ferrier’s historic, heart-rending recording of “He was despised”, at least two minutes longer than any other version that we could find. Messiah has probably done more over the years than thousands of sermons, missions, and evangelistic initiatives to promote the Christian gospel to British audiences. And yet, he shared in his age’s blind spot about the suffering of slaves.

There is no denying the current moral impetus to expose the fallibility of revered historical figures. It is sad, given his evident concern for the underdog, that Handel did not appear to recognise slaves’ plight. But I would not want to erase him from history: to do so would be to assume a righteousness that I do not believe any of us possesses.

Part of our human tragedy is that, in spite of our capacity for compassion and our recognition of wrongdoing, we don’t always recognise the evils in which we are complicit. There are sins of ignorance — at least one of our prayers of confession recognises this liturgically. I often wonder what blind spots future generations will see in us. We all need forgiveness when we know not what we do.

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