Our music for this week is the famous “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
Yes, you read that first line correctly. Today’s music comes from Handel’s Messiah, widely (and mistakenly) known as a Christmas-time holiday favorite. While it is true that a large portion of the Messiah is appropriate for the Christmas season – for instance, the wonderful tenor solo that represents Joseph’s vision of the angel Gabriel and the aria that describes the angels appearing to the shepherds in the fields – there are a select few sections of the work that were never meant to be performed at Christmas-time. The famous Hallelujah chorus is one of those. A quick reading of the text of the chorus shows that it is not issuing a “hallelujah” for the joy of Christ’s birth; rather, it is singing “hallelujah” at His rising from the grave. The “Hallelujah” chorus was, in fact, written for Easter.
Although Handel is best known for his later works, particularly his oratorios and concerti, most of his life was spent as an opera composer. It was actually his operas Rinaldo and Aggrippina that gained him enough fame to establish a lucrative composing career. However, as the genre began to fade near the end of the 18th century, he sensed the direction of the change and began writing oratorios. In keeping with his status as a legendary composer, Handel was able to create the entire text, manuscript, and musical arrangement of the Messiah in a remarkably short period of time. Scholars debate over whether was able to finish it in 24 days or 28 days, but in either case, Handel’s ability to dash off one of the world’s greatest pieces of music without extended effort is humbling and amazing all at once.
The greatness and popularity of this chorus (King George II of England began the long-standing tradition of standing during its performance) would suggest that it contains an amazing musical structure or an enigmatic harmonization that is the key to its widespread acceptance. However, musicologists have found nothing but simplicity when they have tried to dissect its inner workings. Handel simply stretched certain parts of the word “Hallelujah” so that it would convey as much raw power as it possibly could. The word “Hallelujah” is sung “HAAAAA-le-lu-jah,” with the first syllable drawn out over multiple beats, in a fashion that leaves the last three syllables to flourish in an almost explosive manner that is invigorating and exciting to the ear. The chorus’ simplicity can also be seen in the “King of Kings” section, which slowly and steadily builds upon itself until the finale. The shortness of the words, the repetitive nature of the music, and the staccato nature of the section as a whole create an unmistakable tension that is only fulfilled by the regality and majesty of the final “Hallelujah.” The Hallelujah chorus is thus, in the end, a simple melody with even simpler lyrics.
P.S. Have the text of Isaiah 55 and Revelation 19 on hand while listening to this so you can follow along in the Scriptures that Handel used to write the chorus 🙂