A Communal Hallelujah

Photo by Mary Dessein
Photo by Mary Dessein

In Dublin, on April 13, 1742, at age 57, George Frideric Handel debuted his new oratorio, Messiah. He composed it in 22 days. Are you kidding me? It takes me 22 days to clean my house. Even though he was a superstar at that time in London, he had worn out his fans with insignificant operas, and he’d gone bankrupt a couple times. (I had no idea you could go bankrupt in 1742.) So when he was invited to Dublin, across the water he went.

Last week, at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle, their Schola Cantorum, Soloists, and Baroque Orchestra performed for nearly three hours to present Messiah. How many hours of practice that took is beyond me. And the music director, Matthew Loucks. There are not many people I would kiss the ground they walk on. We have never met, yet I watched what he did, how he did it, and the results that together they all achieved. The 21 member choir, soloists, and Baroque Orchestra were passionate; inseparable from the music they were making. They must have been high for days afterward. I hope so.

“But you don’t really care for music, do you? It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift. The baffled king composing Hallelujah.”
Years ago, I sang in a randomly recruited choir assembled for a performance of John Michael Talbot’s The Lord’s Supper. The practices were challenging, as most of us had some singing/music background but were far from professional vocalists. However, we were motivated to sing this beautiful piece: the numerous parts, the harmonies, and the community of us working and singing together to live up to the beauty of the music and bring it live to others.

“There’s a blaze of light in every word. It doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah.”
Supposedly when King George II heard the Hallelujah Chorus the following year at its debut in London, he was so moved by it that he stood up. Of course, when the King stands, so does everyone, which is why audiences by tradition still stand today during performances of the Chorus. There are those who don’t stand, saying it pays respect to a long dead monarch and a societal practice, not to the music. Seems fitting to me to recognize genius, tradition, and a rich beauty that elevates us. When I hear the first notes of the allegro Hallelujah Chorus, I am filled with the exuberance of the music – standing up is the natural response. As I watch the wave of people around me rising to stand, I become part of a community of joyful listeners, joined witnesses to human endeavor. And hope.

“I’ve told the truth, I didn’t try to fool you. And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

Having a bad day? Feeling hopeless? Just want to feel alive? Listen to the Hallelujah Chorus. It doesn’t matter what religion you believe in or don‘t, what spiritual practice you have or don‘t. If the lyrics don’t work for you, pretend you don’t speak English. Hear the magnificent harmonies, sophisticated timing, exquisite layering of voices, subtleties and dynamism, and the trumpets! Oh the trumpets!

Hear the brilliance of Handel and the beauty of human creativity and expression. If you don’t cry, I cry for you.
Thank you, George. Thank you, Leonard. Thank you, Matthew & company.