Friday, April 10, 2009

Handel Easter and the 'Hallelujah' chorus

Since it's Easter... and since this week also marks the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel, one of the most celebrated English composers... I thought I would tie these two moments together and offer you a little bit of the much loved 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Handel's Messiah!

'Messiah' was conceived originally for secular theatre and was first performed during Lent, because of the theme it covers... the presentation of Jesus' life and its significance according to Christian doctrine, it is very much also tied to the Easter period.

Whilst it may have become more common practice, especially since Handel's death, to perform Messiah during Advent, the preparatory period leading up to the Christmas season, rather than during Lent or at Easter, Messiah is still often performed in churches as well as in concert halls at Easter.

Christmas concerts often feature only the first section of Messiah plus the 'Hallelujah' chorus, although some ensembles feature the entire work as a Christmas concert.

Nevertheless, the work is still also very much heard at Eastertide, and selections containing resurrection themes, along with the much loved 'Hallelujah' chorus, are often included in Easter services, particularly because the text of this most famous movement, which concludes the second of the three parts, is drawn from three passages in the New Testament book of Revelation:

"And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. (Revelation 19:6)

And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever! (Revelation 11:15)

And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King of Kings... and Lord of Lords! (Revelation 19:16)

This video offers the more traditional 'Hallelujah' chorus, performed here by the Ambrosian Singers, a small professional London choir founded in 1951:

For best results... turn your speakers UP! smile

All Stand for the 'Hallelujah' Chorus

In many parts of the world, it is the accepted practice for the audience to stand for this section of the performance.

Tradition has it that King George II rose to his feet at this point. As the first notes of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus rang out, the king rose. Royal protocol has always demanded that whenever the monarch stands, so does everyone in the monarch's presence. Thus, the entire audience stood too, initiating a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries. It is lost to history the exact reason why the King stood at that point, but the most popular explanations include:

  • As was and is the custom, one stands in the presence of royalty as a sign of respect. The Hallelujah chorus clearly places Christ as the King of Kings. In standing, King George II accepts that he too is subject to Lord of Lords.
  • He was so moved by the performance that he rose to his feet.
  • He arrived late to the performance, and the crowd rose when he finally made an appearance.
  • His gout acted up at that precise moment and he rose to relieve the discomfort.
  • After an hour of musical performance, he needed to stretch his legs.
There is another story told (perhaps apocryphally) about this chorus that Handel's assistant walked in to Handel's room after shouting to him for several minutes with no response. The assistant reportedly found Handel in tears. When asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to this movement and said, "I thought I saw the face of God"!

A Soulful Celebration

The 'Hallelujah' chorus is also very popular with Gospel Choirs around the world. Here is a very typical example from the Celebration Gospel Choir:

This is a cover song from the award-winning CD Take 6 produced by Mervyn Warren et al, a Black Music Version of the oratory of Georg Friedrich Handel from 1741. The Original CD featured many well known R&B artists like Al Jarreau, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Quincy Jones, Patti Austin, and many more, and won a Grammy in 1993.

According to the YouTube video, the Celebration Gospel Choir are the first to perform the whole work live. This performance was filmed on Dec 13, 2008 at the Capitol in Mannheim, Germany.

Personally, while I can enjoy both, I tend to favour the more traditional version which is one of my all time favourite choral works. Singing the 'Hallelujah' chorus in the safety of a church congregation (lost and hidden away in the crowd) is a great pleasure. It's also great for singing along at bath time, the only time I should ever be allowed to sing. That in itself is debated by some and it is said, an exercise certainly not for the appreciation by others! rolleyes smile

BBC Radio 3 Programmes - Handel's Messiah, Handel Week

BBC - BBC Radio 3 Programmes - Performance on 3, Handel's Messiah, Handel Week - The Messiah Part 1

BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting a special concert of Handel's Messiah, during their Handel Week, at 19:00 BST on Tuesday 14th April 2009. The concert will be broadcast from Westminster Abbey to mark the 250th anniversary of Handel's death.

St James Baroque join the Choir of Westminster Abbey, conducted by James O'Donnell, with a quartet of soloists, for a performance of Handel's most celebrated oratorio, the Messiah.

Westminster Abbey is the place where Handel is buried, and during his lifetime it was the focal point for much of his religious music.

If you miss this broadcast... you may be able to catch it later on the BBC iPlayer (UK residents only) using this link... but you'll have to hurry as it will only be available for a short time. If you missed it... there's always a very reasonably priced recording available at Amazon... see below!

Handel at

Browse more of George Frideric Handel at


roughseasinthemed said...

The Messiah is one of my favourites, I've sung it a couple of times (all through) as part of the choir. Beautiful music.

I was lucky enough to be given a ticket to hear the Christmas performance given by the Huddersfield Choral Society (tickets are like hen's teeth and it came from the spouse of a choir member), and it was truly sublime.

Not sure I'm keen on the gospel version, much as like gospel music.

Cybernest said...

Wow roughseas... sung it a couple of times... all through... goodness me! Good for you!

I once heard it (most of it but not all the way through) at a performance in Norwich Cathedral, with a couple of my girls (I have three for my sins ^_^) in the choir... and that was very memorable... not least also for the wonderful acoustics the Cathedral provided.

Btw... BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting the whole of Handel's Messiah at 19:00 BST tonight... see my updated note on the blog post above!

I'm wondering... have you found somewhere to sing in the Gib area... or are you like me now restricted to only royal bath performances?? :@:@ heh heh

Thanks for your comment! )