I heard a performance about a week ago of Handel’s Messiah. (My review of the concert is here.)
I’ve sung in performances of the piece. I’ve attended sing-along performances and done my share of singing along. But this may have been the first time I sat as an audience member through a complete concert performance of the classic oratorio.
And so somehow I missed that people always stand up for the Hallelujah Chorus.
I mean, not why did I miss that point, but why do people stand?
According to the program notes and to general legend, King George II was so moved at his first hearing of the work that he stood in reverence.
So I have a few questions about that.
I’m guessing he wasn’t so swept away by the first few bars, or even the first “Hallelujah!” The excitement of this chorus is cumulative. It starts off joyfully enough, and from there it grows – in volume, in tessitura, in complexity. Some people suggest that the king, hard of hearing, thought the opening was the national anthem.
Anyway, at what point was the king so moved that he stood?
The ever-dubious-yet-interesting Wikipedia offers as a possible explanation: “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 the Lord of Lords.”
Well, if he was reacting to the reference to the King of Kings, he wouldn’t have stood until the music reached that point. Another website offers the practical possibility that the king was just stretching his legs. (There are some interesting thoughts here.)
It just felt weird to me. We stand at particularly sacred moments in religious services. We stand for national anthems and the raising of flags. We stand for things that are apart from everyday life.
The Hallelujah chorus is a rousing piece of music, beautifully crafted and exciting to hear. But I don’t understand how it has taken on this level of sacredness and inviolability. A more adamant commenter than I wrote:
…it seems not only a barbarism, but also a weird form of idolatry to continue this practice. It imparts a quasi-religious directive to a work of art, thereby disrespecting the work in its concert context as well as the religion that inspired this masterpiece. Why? Because — and this should not have to be said — concerts are not worship services, and the kinds of physical responses worshipers in many traditions follow at particular points in their services are out of place at concerts.
Yes. I’m not going to tell anyone not to stand – that’s their prerogative – but I sure as hell didn’t feel comfortable standing, and yet I felt uncomfortable sitting.
I’m reminded of a story. Years ago, for a celebration of some anniversary of my synagogue’s rabbi’s years of service, my mom penned new lyrics to the Hallelujah chorus. “Hallelujah! Mazel to ya!” And so on.
The synagogue’s organist – who isn’t Jewish – refused to play it. It would be desecration, he said.
Since when? First of all, it’s not a liturgical work. It’s about a sacred subject, and the text is drawn from the Old and New Testaments, but it’s not a sacred service. Second, if you’re that touchy, why are you playing for a congregation outside your faith? But to him, Messiah is so sacred that he couldn’t stand the thought of anyone touching it.
Please. I love music dearly, but let’s keep things in perspective. We don’t need to deify it to respect it.