Katie Jordan, '24
If you have ever heard of the spectacular choral piece Messiah by Handel, you have probably heard it through the extremely famous “Hallelujah” chorus. While this piece of music is iconic, it is not, by any measurement, the best chorus in Messiah. I would argue that it is one of the worst.
First, some context about the piece. Handel’s Messiah is a three-hour long oratorio that was composed in 1741 during the Baroque era by German composer George Fredrick Handel. This piece of music chronicles the story of Jesus’ life from his birth to his death, to his resurrection, and is generally performed around Christmas as a concert. It is composed of various arias (solo) and choruses (group) that detail various turning points in Jesus’ story.
But enough about the history of church music. “Hallelujah” is one of the many choruses in the piece and falls about halfway through the concert. At this point in the story, Jesus has died, and the chorus praises the eternal reign of God on Earth and in heaven. While this piece is certainly bombastic in its use of loud dynamics to hammer home the point of this eternal reign, it is one of the least vocally challenging and most boring choruses.
Unlike other choruses, it does not contain any runs or ornamentation which are characteristic of baroque music. This makes the piece less interesting to the listener when compared to another chorus like “All We Like Sheep” which contains numerous runs. In addition to being fun to listen to, these runs evoke the sense of waywardness that people face when they turn from God. Nothing close to the musical cleverness of “All We Like Sheep” can be found in “Hallelujah.” In many of the arias, or solo pieces, found throughout Messiah there is plentiful ornamentation (added notes), making the pieces more dynamic and personal. Ornamentation is integral to the baroque style and can be found in the chorus “He Trusted in God,” in which it is used to conjure the image of the crowd laughing at Jesus when he is on the cross. Although ornamentation is difficult to execute in choruses it makes them more dynamic, which is an area in which “Hallelujah” is lacking.
“Hallelujah” is also extremely repetitive. Although most choruses are based on a short phrase or sentence, the dynamic (how loud the singing is) varies throughout the chorus and there are fewer repeated notes. The soprano part of “Hallelujah,” spends about 30 seconds of a 3-and-a-half-minute piece reciting the same note (that’s about 15% of the piece). Although the lower parts have dynamic takes on the tired refrain, they are completely overpowered by the screeching sopranos. Unlike in other choruses where repeated words are set to different notes, in “Hallelujah” the same words are set to the same tunes over and over.
Although I have made my qualms with this piece very clear, I feel the need to assert my bias on the subject. I am a chorister and spend dozens of hours every year rehearing and performing Messiah. In addition to being the least musically interesting chorus, “Hallelujah” is extremely straining to sing as it requires repeated and sustained high notes which are vocally strenuous. Due to “Hallelujah’s” popularity, many people leave the concert after it ends. As a performer, it is a bit hurtful to see rows of seats empty out as the piece finishes, knowing that they will miss the best choruses that fall at the end of the concert.
This holiday season, I recommend that you listen to Messiah (or better yet, come see it live at the cathedral) all the way through and appreciate all it has to offer past the iconic “Hallelujah” chorus.