Tune of the Day: Hallelujah Chorus
With the arguable exception of the Water Music, the oratorio Messiah is the one work of Handel's which is universally known. Yet it was composed at a time when Handel's fortunes were at a low ebb. His final attempt to return to opera had proved a failure, and rumor even had it that, having despaired of the London public, he was preparing to leave England. Fortuitously, the clergyman and writer Charles Jennens lured Handel back to the idea of English oratorio; at much the same time, the composer received an offer to take part in the following season of oratorio performances in Dublin. The libretto offered to Handel by Jennens was based around the birth and Passion of Christ, and was called Messiah. By the way, it was originally created for Lent; it was only in the 19th century when it crossed over the Atlantic that performances of “Messiah” became associated with the Christmas season.
The first performance took place at the New Music Hall in Dublin in the spring of 1742. It was received with huge acclaim, the Dublin Journal proclaiming that “Messiah was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard”. The following year the triumph was repeated at Covent Garden, and by the time of the Composer's death in 1758 Messiah had already attained an iconic status it has never relinquished.
The “Hallelujah” chorus, which concludes the second of the three parts of the oratorio, is by far the most famous movement of the work. The text is drawn from three passages in the New Testament book of Revelation:
Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
There is a 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, and when asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to this movement and said, “I thought I saw the face of God.”
In many parts of the world it is traditional for the audience to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus. Legend has it that King George II was so moved by the music that he rose to his feet when he heard it, requiring that his subjects followed suit.