Word of the day: “Hallelujah” from “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah by Handel
performed by the Royal Choral Society on Good Friday 2012 in Royal Albert Hall
Just a couple of weeks ago some friends and I had a friendly discussion about which chorus in Handel’s Messiah is the best, namely whether “Hallelujah Chorus” or “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” is better. I’ve been a big fan of “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” for decades now. The long melismas on the word “born” contrast with the dotted rhythms of the fanfare section that trumpet out “Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” It’s thrilling to sing, hear, and—so I’m told—to play.
But this isn’t the most famous chorus in Handel’s famous work, and it doesn’t even use trumpets. Even with all that Biblical prophetic text, the trumpets don’t show up until “Hallelujah,” which is the most famous chorus when everybody traditionally stands because of a possibly apocryphal story of King George II standing when he first heard the piece. And, let’s be honest, at that point in the show, at the end of Part II of the three-part, three-hourish-long work, everybody is more than happy to stand.
So “Hallelujah” gets a lot of hype, but is it deserved? As the most famous chorus from Messiah “Hallelujah” is possibly overdone and certainly done badly more than any other. While some of the first performances in the early 1740s in Ireland likely used a choir of 36 or so, high school choirs, college choirs, community choirs, and church choirs all around the world program this piece for better or for worse, sometimes with trumpets, sometimes with piano, often without tenors and sopranos who can reliably hit the demanding high As throughout the piece, and usually with trepidation at the complete musical rest just before the final “hallelujah” at the very end—will everyone remember to stop? Someone certainly forgot multiple times in rehearsal.
But it is thrilling. While “For Unto Us” starts in counterpoint with just one part at a time, “Hallelujah” opens in declamatory unison on the signature word, “hallelujah,” by everyone in the choir. These first bars illustrate how Handel organizes the entire piece around the rhythm of the word itself: “hallelujah.” The emphasis falls on “hal-” and “lu-” and quick sixteenth notes the “-lelu” practically jump off the tongue. From there voices pass the word around in counterpoint like fabulous lateral football passing. All this, and it hasn’t even used any Biblical text yet. The word “hallelujah” doesn’t actually appear in the King James Version, the version of the Bible that Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens used in preparing the text. And as much as we hear “Hallelujah” around Christmastime, the rest of the text of this chorus hasn’t even happened yet. This text is also prophetic, coming from two chapters in the Book of Revelation as it announces, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and he shall reign for-ever and ever.”
Although “hallelujah,” a variant form of “alleluia” doesn’t actually appear in the Bible, it does come from Hebrew, from the word “hallel” meaning to praise; specifically it means to praise Yahweh or Jehovah. So the triumphant call of “hallelujah” some forty-ish times in the melody is essentially a repeated rejoicing shout to praise the Lord.
And perhaps it is often sung badly, but I like to think that it is programmed in part because so many people want the opportunity to add their voices to this ultimate grand chorus. If that some of the reason, it reminds me too of this quotation by Marcel Proust: “That bad music is played, is sung more often and more passionately than good, is why it has also gradually become more infused with man’s dreams and tears. Treat it therefore with respect. Its place, insignificant in the history of art, is immense in the sentimental history of social groups.” And this isn’t even bad music. This is great music sometimes performed badly, which I think gives it even more to recommend it. By its sheer musical requirements “Hallelujah” lifts those who perform it to be better than they might otherwise be.
Enjoy it on this winter solstice, what seems to be not just the longest night of the year but also one of the longest nights in the history of the entire Earth. Hallelujah to the light of the world.