Michael Marissen (born July 31, 1960, Hamilton, Ontario) was professor of music at Swarthmore College, where he joined the faculty in 1989. Marissen studied music history at Calvin College and received his PhD from Brandeis University. He has guest taught on the graduate faculty at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. In June 2014 Marissen announced that he had retired from active teaching at Swarthmore, although he remains a professor emeritus. He now works as a freelance writer, lecturer, and scholar.
Marissen's books, centered on the issue of music and religion, include The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Princeton, 1995), Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion: With an Annotated Literal Translation of the Libretto (Oxford, 1998), An Introduction to Bach Studies (Oxford, 1998) with Daniel R. Melamed, and Bach's Oratorios: The Parallel German-English Texts with Annotations (Oxford, 2008), and Bach & God (Oxford 2016).
Marissen's most controversial work began as an essay published in The New York Times on Easter Sunday, 8 April 2007, entitled “Unsettling History of That Joyous ‘Hallelujah’", which is the basis for his recently published monograph entitled, Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World’s Most Beloved Choral Work (Yale University Press, 2014). The first half of the book outlines his thesis that Handel and his librettist showed an unattractive and morally questionable anti-Judaism that manifested itself in "triumphalism," a caustic celebration of the defeat of the Jews at the hands of the Romans (in AD 70, with the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple). The second half of the book contains an annotated libretto of "The Messiah," illuminating the many often obscure passages that rely on an extensive understanding of typology as a technique for understanding Christianity and the New Testament.
The article received a long series of spirited responses, including a follow-up news story in the Times, many letters to the editor, follow-up responses in a wide variety of publications  (including from Watergate-figure Chuck Colson and from the religion author Martin E. Marty), along with extensive blog and internet newsgroup discussions.
His most recent work, Bach and God, explores the religious character of Bach's vocal and instrumental music in seven interrelated essays. Marissen offers wide-ranging interpretive insights from careful biblical and theological scrutiny of the librettos. Yet he also shows how Bach's pitches, rhythms, and tone colors can make contributions to a work's plausible meanings that go beyond setting texts in an aesthetically satisfying manner. In some of Bach's vocal repertory, the music puts a " learned counterpoint, can powerfully project certain elements of traditional Lutheran theology. Bach's music is inexhaustible, and Bach & God suggests that through close contextual study there is always more to discover and learn. Published by Oxford University Press, it was released on April 20, 2016 and is available to order now.
In May 2016, Michael Marissen and his wife, author Lauren Belfer, were profiled in The New York Times. In the article, they discuss their working process, Bach, and writing a novel with musical accuracy.
- email from Marissen to his email links on 6/17/2014
- Publication listing
- Classical Music Review of Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism and Bach's 'St. John Passion'
- Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion: With an Annotated Literal Translation of the Libretto
- The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos
- Bach's Oratorios: The Parallel German-English Texts with Annotations