Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus
It was in my youth that Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus became the crowning glory of every Christmas midnight mass. I sang alto in the church choir, and the Chorus was the celebratory finale I looked forward to throughout the service. And I was not the only one. In the choir stalls and in the church below, the long, atmospheric mass with its liturgical texts, its Christmas story, its music and its Christmas carols was drawn together in one liberating Hallelujah! Many of the congregation sang along quietly, and with the music still ringing in our bodies we returned in the dark to our homes, the Christmas supper and a warm heater were waiting for us.
The Christmas ritual as the complete experience it was during the midnight mass arouses in me a sense of melancholy and nostalgia. Today Christmas often consists of fragmented rituals. We sing a carol, have a Christmas crib, enjoy a Christmas dinner, and maybe go to church. We all do it in our own different ways. That’s the way things are – times change, and Christmas rituals change with them.
Fortunately, the Hallelujah Chorus is still with us. There are all kinds of different ways to perform it, and in recent years I’ve been busy searching for ‘my’ Chorus on YouTube. Of the many modern performances I’ve picked out four, the first of which is a tradional.
Because ways of performing have changed so much over time, it’s worth finding out what Handel’s real Hallelujah Chorus is. After all, this is part of our musical heritage, and I feel it’s worth checking whether a performance is traditional, innovative or radically different from the original historical version. When interpreting this it helps to have some knowledge of Handel’s career and his way of working.
To this day not all that much is known about Handel’s career. Nonetheless, a lot has been written about him, and still is. The various sources such as Classical Cat and the Larousse Encyclopaedia devote a great deal of attention to Handel and his music (pp. 214-219).
Handel was born in the North German town of Halle in 1685. He was the same age as Johann Sebastian Bach, and came from the same area – but these were the only similarities between the two great composers.
The boy did not come from a music family – his father was a surgeon at the court. Although he enjoyed a materially comfortable youth, his father opposed his wish to pursue his interest in music, and demanded that he become a lawyer, even though he was a musical child prodigy. But the lad followed his heart, and was given music lessons by the cantor and organist at Halle’s cathedral, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow; according to the sources this was the only teacher Handel would ever have. At the age of 17 he was allowed to play the cathedral organ, earning great praise for his performance.
At the same time he built up an extensive network of contacts, friends and people who took a liking to him and helped him on his professional way. When he was given an opportunity to pursue his career as a violinist and harpsichordist at the Hamburg opera in 1703, he left Halle for good.The child prodigy had become an unstoppable multitalented musician.
Soon afterwards Handel went to Italy, where he met many opera composers. He spent a long time in Venice, and became a very successful opera composer.
The Elector of Hanover, who later became King George I of Great Britain, was also fond of opera and persuaded Handel to become director of court music in Hanover. This was a springboard to a future position in London, where he became King George’s court composer in 1712.
Italian opera was all the rage in London, and Handel established the Royal Academy of Music there. The company was a great success, and he became a very wealthy man. He turned out to be not only a brilliant composer and musician, but also an excellent organiser and manager.
But eventually his success was brought to an end by competition from a new opera company, the Opera of the Nobility. After his own business had been reorganised several times it was clear that his career in opera was over. His health began to suffer, and he realised it was time for a change of tack.
In response to his changed circumstances Handel took an interest in oratorio. This became his second career, and once again he showed his brilliant versatility. His great success in the new genre helped him forget his past disappointments.
A second career
Messiah is seen as Handel’s best-known and most successful oratorio. It is a musical narrative consisting of separate short texts from the Old and New Testaments, rather than a complete story like most oratorios.
When the landowner, patron of the arts and lyricist Charles Jennens asked Handel to write the music for his Christmas libretto, the composer immediately said yes. Despite his ill-health he completed the job in just three weeks. It should be noted that the coherent story line normal found in oratorios is absent here. Another unusual feature is that Handel left plenty of room for interpretation and adaptation.
All things considered, Handel’s career makes clear that he was truly a musical genius. At the same time he was enterprising, and a good organiser and manager of his company and productions. He was sociable, and committed to his audiences. That he was a lifelong bachelor, as well as an art collector, are side issues that are sometimes overemphasised in publications about him, and that I feel detract from the appreciation of his music.
Messiah was first performed in 1742 at a concert hall in Dublin; the proceeds from the event, which Jennens planned well in advance, went to charity. It is said that King George, who attended the performance, stood up during the Hallelujah Chorus, and that for reasons of etiquette the rest of the audience followed suit.
Hallelujah is an originally Hebrew exclamation meaning 'Praise God'. In Judaism the word is mainly used in praising and thanking the Lord. In the Catholic liturgy it is rather a cry of enthusiasm about God.
Messiah has lost none of its fascination over time. The way it was performed did change in response to the spirit of the age and interpretations by conductors and musicians. The composition lends itself to this, and Handel himself kept tinkering with the score. For instance, it is known that he geared the performance to specific audiences, and to the musicians.
Messiah for the elite
In the ‘Handel Year’ 2009 the Schoenberg Choir performed a theatrical version of Messiah. The choir did full credit to the eponymous composer with its scenically choreographic performance. However, I do not feel this was appropriate for Messiah, since the Christmas oratorio was unique and was intended for a large, broad audience. This performance was for a small number of fans. The tickets were expensive, and the audience wealthy and highly educated. The performance was hard to understand and, in its complexity, enhanced the status of those that did understand it – a well-known social phenomenon in the art world.
Schoenberg (1885-1974 was of course a very different kind of composer than Handel. Peter Gay (pp. 229-239) calls him a militant innovator and, together with Stravinsky, the only true avant-garde composer of classical music. He radically rejected tradition and the social order, turned his back on ordinary people and saw himself as the only source of creativity. He grew up in a Jewish family but was brought up as a Catholic. He converted to Protestantism, but antisemitism in post-war Austria and his friend Kandinsky’s antisemitism made him return to Judaism. He later went to the United States to escape the growing threat. An important statement of his was that religion has always been a vital support, but without the chains of the institutionalised church.
The choir performs Messiah as a stage play in which sound, rhythm and acting merge into the form – a radical departure in which the scenic choreography demands as much attention as the music. An outstanding performance.
Food Court Hallelujah Chorus
The next Hallelujah Chorus has headed my YouTube top three for several years: well sung, warm, open, and sung for a varied audience and choir that merge in a celebratory song of jubilation.
Yet I notice that my preference is gradually shifting, and I wonder what Handel would think of it. Would it still be ‘his’ Hallelujah Chorus? Suppose the choir had sung ‘You’ll never walk alone’ or ‘With a little help from my friends’. Perhaps that also arouses such a feeling. But it isn’t an authentic Christmas feeling, and that’s what also matters to me.
Which brings me to my current preference.
The Hallelujah Chorus as musical heritage
If we wish to preserve pieces of our musical heritage such as the Hallelujah Chorus, we must as far as possible leave them as they were – otherwise they are no longer heritage.
Yet times change, and it is inevitable that we perform Messiah in accordance with the spirit of our age, while preserving its historical essence.
In my opinion the Schoenberg choir’s avant-garde performance has little to do with Messiah and the Hallelujah Chorus. I look and listen, but can’t relate to it – perhaps it’s just my own feeling. The scenic choreography almost predominates over the music. The staccato arrangement and the often incomprehensible interpretation of, for example, the Chorus round a coffin is absurd, and an assault on my experience of Christmas and the music.
Fortunately the operarambling blog contains a discussion that supports my own interpretation and approach.
The Food Court music, the location and the presentation suggest a completely different perception – heart-warming, and how much I’d have liked to be there! Yet from the point of view of musical heritage it is worthwhile investigating whether Handel would have accepted such a performance. There is no orchestra and no Christmas story, and a few years later I can’t help wondering whether another splendid choir could not have the same impact on me.
When I experience Emanuelle Haïm and her Baroque orchestra, I’m released from my first memories. Finally a performance that I feel was Handel’s intention, and yet is adapted to the present day.
The Hallelujah Chorus belongs to us all
In an interview with Dutch TV host Arjen Lubach, the Dutch art historian and former museum director Rudi Fuchs provides an interesting view of the ‘cultural elite’ phenomenon, which he considers old-fashioned. He believes we can now better speak of a particular group of fans, which may vary in size.
Of course it is a matter of taste which version of the Hallelujah Chorus is preferable. For me it is only a problem if the taste of a small group is assumed to be good taste. That upsets me, for it should not happen to Handel’s music – it conflicts with its meaning.
In the end, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus belongs to us all!
♦ English translation Kevin Cook.