OT: a long Hallelujah recitative
To begin with, a confession: I am among the many thousands across the Western world who at this time of year participate in choral events that inflict Handel’s Hallelujah chorus upon our communities. I apologize, dear readers. In the choir of which I am part, we attempt to atone for this musical transgression by singing other, less threadbare (and to my ear, far more beautiful) selections from Messiah, as well as other sacred– and some not-so-sacred but nevertheless aesthetically serious – selections. But it is, I fear, at best a limited atonement. For every “Hallelujah” sung in chorus 44 (in the garish and heavy orange-and-white Shaw edition, if anyone is keeping up at home), a little more debt is added to the account that can never be settled.
Fortunately popular culture these days has no problem enthusiastically running up a huge artistic deficit. The truth is, the audiences who flock to the kind of “Messiah and more” concerts I’m singing in this year are as much to blame for fetishizing that one “Messiah” chorus as the singers themselves, maybe more so. Or rather, whomever it is who programs all these Christmas events. For these are the people who continuously, year after everloving year, insist on making the Hallelujah chorus the centerpiece of concerts at this time of year. One doesn’t necessarily blame them, but still …
When I was kid, it was an annual event for several rural churches to load up a caravan of church buses on some Sunday afternoon in early to mid-December and head for
For community choruses, to sing Handel is almost literally to sing for one’s supper, inasmuch as large portions of the audience might not otherwise sit through “all the other stuff” – the real substance of the performance – to say nothing of buying a ticket in the first place, if those Hallelujahs weren’t on the playbill. But this is not necessarily a bad bargain. Such implicit truces between community and chorus have allowed contemporary composers like John Rutter to get his work out there, perhaps most famously his “What Sweeter Music.”
I first heard this piece 10 years or so ago at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis at the annual candlelight Christmas event there, and I was floored by it. My dear friend MNP was singing in the St. Louis Bach Society at the time and to hear the Rutter with the newly developed musical ear that MNP had been training me to cultivate was a revelation. Finally, a Christmas piece (which is part of his Polyphony collection of carols) that manages to capture, without unsubtly pinning down or gracelessly overarticulating, an authentic range of modern feeling about Christmas in musical thought: echoing the English tradition we all associate with holiday music but inflecting it with something newer – something like a post-modern sense of the more complex texture of contemporary holiday ritual, so full as it now is, for better and worse, with a multitude of traditions, beliefs, and unbeliefs. Polyphony, indeed.
Tonight I’m part of a chorus performing Rutter’s “Gloria,” a for more sacerdotal and Latinate composition than “What Sweeter Music.” I find “Gloria” at times rather repetitive and its rhythmic variations often gratuitously obtuse, but then I’m not very discerning when it comes to sacred music. Which means I’m probably just not getting it. Still, I have come to care deeply for it. It’s hard not to love a difficult piece you’ve worked months to … well, not exactly master (there are some “amen” runs in the third movement that have proven almost impervious to my limited skills), but I have summitted the peaks of Rutter, no matter how ungraceful the climbing may be at times.
I am fortunate to sing with a group that takes itself seriously enough to hire professional players for a small orchestra with organ. These people come from among the local symphony and the more musically sophisticated churches in the area. Singing with pros of this caliber can be so delightful as to become distracting. Like playing a fine piano, singing with good players just makes you sound better. And being a very minor part of a complexly interlocking harmonic system is a transcendent experience (it makes me wonder if the gospel artists who have gone bandless over the course of their careers feel their aesthetic experience of the music diminished at all … surely they must, right?). So if you have to end up hallelujahing yourself silly at the end of the evening, this ain’t a bad way to go about it. And as Rutter might say at this point: ah-ah-ah-ah-men.Email this Post