Maybe you’ve experienced this:
You’re at a Christmas or Easter concert, and you hear the opening strains of a very familiar song. Suddenly, all around you a titanic mass heaves itself upward, and you, not knowing any differently, join the swell in standing, being part of the crowd, beLONGing! Why?
For those who don’t know (or haven’t read my introductory blog entry), I am a professional musician: I play piano and percussion in the Toccoa Symphony Orchestra, and I have been a church choir director for nearly 25 years. I have sung in the Messiah several times, and also played timpani. Every Christmas, the symphony (and our symphony choir) closes the program with the Hallelujah Chorus. The only percussion on this piece is timpani, and since I play primarily mallets (there are none in Baroque music), I go up and sing with the choir. On occasion, I am simply attending a performance elsewhere because my wife is playing violin. If I’m in the audience, when the time comes for this song, guess what? I DON’T STAND FOR THE HALLELUJAH CHORUS!!! Why?
Do you, dear reader, know why people stand for “The Chorus”, as I call it? What is so reverent about this song, compared to any other in The Messiah?
Everyone knows that a man named Handel wrote a work (whether they are familiar with the term ‘oratorio’ or not) entitled The Messiah, and that arguably the most famous part of that creation is the Hallelujah Chorus. Since this is the limit of knowledge for most, allow me to educate you further:
After tiring of operas, Handel became fascinated with writing works with less complicated staging; thus the ‘oratorio’ would later become his claim to fame. He would sometimes choose a libretto (story) or write based on a theme of ideas; the Messiah is an example of the latter. Despite any appearance based on a Biblical motif, Handel’s music was written for the theatre, not the church. The composer was a master of word painting (a composition term referring to how the music sounds like what is being said); this device (and as a composer myself, I’ve occasionally used it) has a tendency to sound like an exaggeration. The phrasing in “For Unto Us a Child is Born”, with its endless-seeming melisma (look that one up!) is meant to sound like what a woman experiences during childbirth.
How did this singular oratorio become popular among Christian churches? I suspect it’s because people are preconditioned to only see and hear what they want, and when something sounds like REALLY spiritual stuff, especially if it quotes the Bible, then all other considerations fly out of the window. This also applies to much of modern contemporary church music: The words on the screen strike an emotion within the listeners, and they get so caught up in that aspect that they are unaware that the song is garbage musically (a topic for another day). Think about the words to the “The Chorus”: “Hallelujah. for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth (repeated over and over and over); the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (sung just once); and He shall reign forever and ever (and ever and ever…) Hallelujah!” Does this remind you of anything? YES! Handel wrote the first praise-and-worship style music (the 7-11 variety some folks mention)!
To me, the entire Messiah sounds like it’s mocking the very words it’s proclaiming. I hear you asking, “If that’s how you feel, then WHY do you participate?” The answer is that I can separate myself from this emotion and focus singing my part well, while being thankful in my soul for what Christ did for us. The Chorus, however, holds no more special significance than any other song in that work. If I were forced to choose, I believe the closing number, “Worthy is the Lamb”, is much more reverent and ‘worshipful’ than it’s preceding and more popular song. But I still haven’t answered the original question, have I?
One almost never hears the entire Messiah performed all at once; either the first section (referred to by many as the Christmas portion), with The Chorus appended, or the second and third sections (Easter portion), which already include The Chorus, are what is usually sung, and even then in an abridged version. To listen to the entire oratorio would take at least three hours including intermissions between sections. That’s a loooong time to hold your attention or to sit in an uncomfortable chair.
The king of England would often attend at least the inaugural performance of a work by his court or church composers. George the First was in the audience, in his balcony box, at the premier of The Messiah. “Hallelujah” is the closing number of the second section. The king was getting stiff, and, instead of waiting until after this song, decided to stand up and stretch his legs. The tradition (and perhaps the law) was: when the king stands, Everybody stands! And THAT, dear reader, is how this nonsense started! The King of England did NOT stand because he felt especially moved by the spirituality or reverence of The Chorus! However, just as often happens in the present, his action was misinterpreted as some grandiose Christian statement (the king was the head of the Church of England, after all), so, even if he did not attend future performances, the tradition continued, apparently for perpetuity.
So why are we expected to stand every time we hear the Hallelujah Chorus? For reverent or spiritual reasons? Not for those who are truly informed! To honor the memory of George the First? I can’t imagine anyone outside the UK who would answer that with yes. Then why? Simple: We are so ingrained that whatever we do out of habit MUST always be the right thing to do, that there are things so sacred we dare not act in any other way. IS that a reason to do anything? Hmmmm….