The Re-Writing of Jewish Music and Libretti: Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a German-born Baroque composer. Handel travelled to Italy before settling in England, were he composed the majority of his operas and oratorios. Many of Handel’s oratorios use Old Testament texts and settings which celebrate Jewish history and the triumph of the Jewish people through adversity. Under the Nazis, art that depicted Jews in a positive way was forbidden, but Handel’s oratorios were too highly regarded to be dismissed. Instead the Nazis changed the texts and settings of Handel’s most popular Old Testament oratorios so that they no longer depicted Jewish triumph. The oratorio that caused the Nazis the most problems was Judas Maccabaeus, a work based on the Old Testament story depicting the Jews’ fight to prevent their religion from being destroyed.

Even before the Nazis came to power, Handel’s music had been politically appropriated by German musicologists. At the 1922 Handel festival in Halle, musicologist Alfred Heuß made a speech arguing that Germany might have won the First World War if only they had understood Handel’s music: ‘England, which was in possession of Handel’s Messiah, conquered Germany, which was in possession of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.’ From 1933 the Nazis attempted to rewrite certain historical facts. Early biographies, for example, had stated that Handel had become an English citizen, whereas new biographies claimed that this was untrue. Rather than having been influenced by English music, it was claimed that Handel had himself influenced English musical style, as two of his pupils wrote ‘Rule, Britannia,’ and ‘God Save the King.’

The oratorios, which were set to English-language texts, were important to the Nazis because underlying many of them was the theme of giving a voice to the people. The oratorios had also become very popular with both Jewish and non-Jewish singing groups and choral societies. Unfortunately for the Nazis, however, the impoverished people represented in many of the Old Testament oratorios, who stood strong against the enemy, were Jewish. Thus began the process of ‘dejudaizing’ Handel’s oratorios in order to edit out anything that was not in line with Nazi policy.

At a Handel festival to mark Handel’s 250th birthday in 1935, keynote speaker and Nazi visionary Alfred Rosenberg asserted that Handel’s greatest success, Judas Maccabaeus, was only a celebration of military victory, and discussed how difficult it must have been for Handel to set a text that corresponded “so little to the nature of his being.” Handel experts advised that German performers move away from ‘overly Judaized German translations’ of the oratorios. Interestingly, Goebbels disagreed with the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber), stating that works would be devalued if they were changed. Instead, Goebbels examined the Handel oratorios personally and concluded that nothing in the texts was controversial. Interestingly, while Jews were explicitly forbidden from performing works by Mozart and Beethoven, Handel’s oratorios were still being performed by Jewish groups until 1938.

In 1941 the Reichstelle für Musikbearbeitung (National Office for Music Production) began to rework the oratorios, and the texts for Israel in Egypt, Joshua and Samson were revised into Der Opfersieg bei Walstatt (Victory at the Battlefield), Die Ostlandfeier (Eastern Celebration) and the Wieland Oratorio, respectively. The NS-Kulturgemeinde (League for German Culture) ordered that Judas Maccabaeus be changed into Held und Friedenswerk (Hero and Labour of Peace), an ode to Hitler. The main changes in these works was the recasting of Jewish Biblical characters into anonymous heroes, and changing the setting of the works into historical events that would glorify the German military. Other versions of the oratorios emerged, including one by Hermann Stepheni, Der Feldherr (The General), in which the characters Joshua, Jesse and Lysias were anonymous, and Biblical references were changed, e.g. ‘Israel’ was changed to ‘Fatherland.’ In another version, Wilhelmus von Nassauen (which premiered on the day the Germans occupied the Rhineland in 1936), the setting was adjusted to depict the liberation of the Netherlands from Spanish domination. The character of Judas became William of Orange, and the song ‘Rejoice, O Judah’ became ‘Rejoice, Holland.’ That Judas Maccabaeus was subject to the most reworking of all the oratorios is evidence that the Nazis admired the work enough to prevent it from being banned altogether.

By Abaigh McKee


Grunberger, R. (1971) A Social History of the Third Reich (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

Hirsch, L. E. (1979) A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: musical politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League (USA: University of Michigan Press)

Kater, M. H. (1997) The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich (USA: Oxford University Press)

Potter, P. M. (2001) ‘The Politicization of Handel and His Oratorios in the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and the Early Years of the German Democratic Republic’ The Musical Quarterly, 85 (2) 311-341.