One of the pieces that I accompanied last Sunday at the Punahou Chapel 50th Anniversary celebration was Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” from Messiah. The piece was done at the dedication service 50 years ago, and the chaplains wanted to include it in the 50th anniversary service too.
Now, you have to understand that when I am asked to play the “Hallelujah Chorus,” I always have one question: Am I playing it with instruments or am I providing the only accompaniment? If it is the former, then I always breathe a sigh of relief, because then I play “continuo organ,” which are just the basic chords, not all the running sixteenth notes that are part of the orchestral accompaniment. I must admit that I’ve played the continuo organ part to Messiah for several years running (with the Kona Choral Society), and it’s a piece of cake.
Unfortunately, when I inquired about the Punahou service, I found out that I was going to be the only accompaniment. According to an article I found in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, “It’s one of the most difficult accompaniments that an organist can play,” said Trent Johnson. Essentially you have to play all the notes the orchestra plays, reduced down to what you can grab with only two hands and two feet.
The article continues, “… you’re constantly doing widely different things and having to adapt them to an instrument that the piece was not written for,” says Steven Russell, an officer of the Monmouth County chapter of the American Guild of Organists. “You have to improvise. You’re looking at notes, but you’re not playing what’s there.”
The author suggested that if you do a Google search on “Handel Messiah organ” one of the first links that pops up is “Organist fail,” a soundtrack which recorded when the organist had a TERRIBLE mishap and played the final chords in another key, which is all too easy to do—when the player “somehow lands on the wrong notes, clashing with the singers.” The organist who was interviewed said, ““It’s a little intimidating … because there’s so much going on in the accompaniment and everyone knows it.”
But the last few chords are super easy—it’s what comes before that is so challenging. Thankfully everything went extremely well after I had practiced for a few days. I must say, though, that after I played Saturday’s rehearsal where the choir rehearsed nothing but the Hallelujah Chorus for an hour, I was exhausted! All those sixteenth notes! All those runs! All those pedal jumps!
Guess what! Just now I discovered that there are several “easy” and “intermediate” versions of the organ accompaniment that are published and readily available. Of course, though, a lot of the notes have been left out, so getting one of those “cheats” really wasn’t an option for last weekend’s service.
To tell you the truth, I can’t imagine Handel himself trying to do an orchestral reduction of Messiah for the organ alone—he would have always included instruments.
Here’s a video showing Simone Gheller playing the Virgil Fox arrangement of the Hallelujah Chorus. Except for the middle section, you can see that his feet never stop moving!
And just to cleanse your aural palate, here is the 2011 performance of the Kings College Cambridge singers doing the Hallelujah Chorus with only organ accompaniment.