Standing for the “Hallelujah Chorus”?

When I got the program of the Oahu Choral Society concert two days ago, I noted that the “Hallelujah Chorus” by Georg Frideric Handel was scheduled, and I wondered why I wasn’t asked to accompany it. Well, guess what, yesterday I got an email from Dana Harrison, the Executive Director, that I am to play it after all. As I wrote back, “It’s a good thing I still have this in my fingers!” as it should be for every organist.

I looked back at my previous blog posts about this piece, and revisited “Hallelujah Chorus,” in which one of my former students proclaimed, “I hate this piece! It’s just so hard!” and indeed, if I were still in high school and had three days’ notice to prepare this piece, I would have been thrown into a panic.

Here is the Oahu Choral Society program’s description of this piece: When the Messiah premiered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1742, King George II was in attendance. When it came to the Hallelujah Chorus he stood up. Whenever the king stood up, everyone in his presence had to stand up, so the whole audience stood. No one is really sure whether the king stood up because he liked the music or for some other reason, but it has become tradition for the audience to stand up when the Hallelujah Chorus is sung.

[N.B. It’s not “The Messiah,” it’s “Messiah.” See my explanation here. And while you’re there, read my thoughts on mispronouncing Handel’s last name.]

A thorough explanation of the history of standing for the “Hallelujah Chorus” was explored in a two-part Boston Globe article by Matthew Guerrieri called “Rise and Say ‘Hallelujah’” He questions whether George II was even in the audience!

I think I liked this part of the article best: ”

But the monarchical overtones of standing for a king, no matter what his dominion, struck some as an odd fit in America, especially as 20th-century superpower status ratified the country’s democratic experiment. Conductor Robert Shaw, who hated the tradition, maintained that it was George II’s bladder, not his soul, that caused him to rise with such alacrity, the king having lost track of when intermission started. The historian Robert Manson Myers expressed incredulity that “thousands who can scarcely distinguish F sharp from middle C punctiliously observe a custom established by a stupid Hanoverian king and his worldly court two hundred years ago.’’

Perhaps the custom persists precisely because no one is sure why it exists, leaving every audience member to choose his or her own rationale. Royal example, religious devotion, reassuring ritual, rousing musicality – take your pick. Or don’t: Remaining seated during the “Hallelujah’’ chorus ranks as one of the more effortless demonstrations of anti-authoritarian dissent.

So stand if you want, but if you don’t, it’s okay.

The Oahu Choral Society’s concert, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy,” is Saturday night, December 9 at 7:30 pm at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Tickets are available at the door or online.

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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One Response to Standing for the “Hallelujah Chorus”?

  1. Tim Carney says:

    Messiah was not premiered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The 1742 premiere was at the New Music Hall, Fishamble Street, in Dublin, and King George would certainly not have attended. The front of the building is all that remains of the hall today, and there is a plaque commemorating the Messiah premiere. When Handel gave the London premiere, a year later, it was at Covent Garden Theatre.

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