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 Flat River, where the Mineral Area Community College music department (actually no slouch of a program for the middle of nowhere Missouri) put on the Messiah. Mostly the bus tended to be full of mothers and grandmas and aunts and sisters … and the few boys (like me) who preferred sotto voce and mezzo forte to Sunday afternoon football.

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.

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  1. BUICK wrote:

    Oh boy! I just can’t wait to read what the SG bloggers have to say on this thread. This should be a real picnic. Perhaps unfairly but i have believed that most SG fans don’t know their sacerdotal from their sacrosanct or their sacroiliac. But, again, perhaps I’m wrong.

  2. Winthrop wrote:

    Who else hears the sound of rustling from over at Mount Listmore, busily readying perhaps his Top 10 Favorite Choral Arrangements blog?

  3. Chuck Sims wrote:


    Your point is well taken about “Hallelujah.” Most readers would probably be surprised to know that Handel never intended this chorus to be a Christmas piece. Tradition, and more likely, time limit, has divided the complete work of “Messiah” into a Christmas and Easter section. It is interesting that “Hallelujah” is actually a part of the Easter section, although it is usually sung at Christmas. Go figure.

    I also concur with your opinion of John Rutter compositions. While more often too difficult for a very amateur choir, they are a great experience for the more accomplished singer, and sadly enough some of the only challenges of the current compositions available. His Christmas carols are choice. Keep up the good work.

  4. John Crenshaw wrote:

    I think John Rutter is one of the most outstanding composers of our day. I’ve spent many hours learning and performing his music.

    I was fortunate to attend a wonderful concert this afternoon by the Hickory Choral Society. The works of John Rutter, Mack Wilberg, and Sir David Wilcocks filled every corner of this beautiful church setting.

    There are a few (possibly VERY few) of us that read your writings that also appreciate the works of composers other than Gaither, Brumley, Rambo, and Griffin.

  5. Niven wrote:

    John Rutter’s arrangement of “For the Beauty of the Earth”, sung by the Cambridge Singers…my particular favorite.

  6. judi wrote:

    Chuck Sims has already said what I was going to write, that Handel didn’t write the Messiah as Christmas music. The first time I heard the Hallelujah Chorus performed at Christmas was as an adult, and it still grates on me. My own preference is to play a really good LP recording (yes, LP) of the Messiah during the week before Easter. The Hallelujah is the climax of the composition, but not the end. And no, it doesn’t surprise me that there are people who enjoy both Southern Gospel and traditional choral music. Music is a universal language and in its myriad voices, connects mortals to the spirit we sometimes call Divine.

  7. Grigs wrote:

    The McKameys didn’t sing none of them songs you was posting about there, did they? :)

  8. Sockpuppet wrote:

    By George, I think he’s found a hobby. ;-P

  9. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    Where is your glossary of terms on this blog for the under educated?

  10. Music chick wrote:

    I concur with your post, Doug, and wholeheartedly agree with #3. It’s also always fun for me to watch people look around at others that begin to stand when the “Hallelujah” Chorus is sung and then finally give in to peer pressure and stand themselves, with no inclination as to why. I highly recommend the “New Young Messiah” recorded in ‘93. Yes, Michael English(amazing performance!), Sandi Patti and Maribeth Jordan are on there, but the performances are wonderfully done to introduce The Messiah to those who are not familiar with Handel, and just listen to the McKameys.
    As for Rutter, his pieces are both moving and thought-provoking. His Requiem to also amazing.
    Who says the SG community can’t be edju-ma-cated!?!

  11. Joe wrote:

    And that is not the only “Christmas song” brutalized each year…

    I just remembered, with a huge smile, the Chinese waiters singing to Ralphie and his family, sitting down in the restaurant to their Chinese Christmas dinner in the “you’ll-shoot-yer-eye-out” Christmas story;

    Fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra, ra ra.

  12. Bob wrote:

    This post brings up some wonderful memories for me. A tradition at the public high school choir I attended was to end the annual Christmas concert with the Hallelujah Chorus and invite all the alumni up to join in. I’m not sure if it is done anymore (that was 25 years ago before political correctness had run amok).

    10 years ago I was singing in a small (10-15 people) church choir and the choir director (who was tireless and incredibly optimistic) decided that we could sing the Messiah. Many of the other choir members grumbled and complained that it was too hard and that we would never get it right. When the time came for the special church service, the choir director brought in a small string ensemble, and, amazingly, it all came together quite nicely. I got to sing the solo on “Comfort Ye My People”, and it was a memorable experience.

    Although if Averyfineline had existed in 1742, I’m sure the author would have had a special post about how the lyrics don’t work. “Every Valley, Every Valley, Shall Be Exhaaa-aah -aaa ha-aaa-a-aa haa-ted.” By the time the singer is done with the run (or runs out of breath) you forget what he was trying to say!

  13. Faith wrote:

    Great post! It’s nice to know that some people who enjoy SG can also enjoy - gasp! - other forms of music, too!

  14. John Crenshaw wrote:

    I’m impressed!

  15. dkd wrote:

    Joe # 11…I love your Fa rarararara..and yes that part of the movie was priceless! (Go Ralphie)

  16. HML wrote:

    My ears perked up at mention of the Messiah. :-) I LOVE the Hallelujah chorus, but I think you can miss out on some of the meaningful depth when it’s not sung in context with the other choruses. Last night I sang in a two hour performance of the Messiah - 15 choruses plus assorted recitatives and airs - as part of a 160 voice choir, with a chamber orchestra, and guest soloists, two of whom are professional opera singers. For me it’s always a way of returning my focus to the whole story of Christ - not just his birth, for that would be nothing without the cross and resurrection. It’s serious music, though not without it’s happy moments, and I believe sacred music, done well, is beautiful, inspiring, and timeless, no matter what genre you favor.

  17. Matt G. wrote:

    Here at good old Olivet Nazarene University, the entire music department combines every Christmas to perform nearly the entire Messiah. Why we do so much when not all of it’s Christmas? I still haven’t figured it out. I do know this, from 4 years of performing it under the same director. Accent the third syllable not the fourth!!!

  18. Rod wrote:

    I personally like the compositions of Larry The cable Maestro guy. :)

  19. Rod wrote:

    I’m Bacccckkkk!! He He…Hey Mr. Averyfineline…Miss me?

  20. steve wrote:

    #9, Are you Angie Hoskins?

  21. Ben wrote:

    I’ve played this entire oratorio many times during my college years and into my professional life as a working musician. I’ve NEVER heard it performed correctly.

    Handel did NOT write a ritardando or fermata at the end-so why do we incessantly hear it performed “Ha-LAAAAYYYYY-LOOOOO-YAAHHHHH.

    Maybe I’m a cranky purist about music, but I think it ought to be performed as the composer wrote and intended it.

    What say you? Do you believe music ought to be performed to the composers intentions?

  22. ITF wrote:

    I don’t know, I’ve seen that approach taken to extremes, I tend to think “not necessarily always.”

    I say let some room for artistic interpretation.

  23. cdguy wrote:

    Ben, as a musical purist, you should realize Handel, in addition to his own compositions, did some re-arranging of other composers’ works. Also, it might be pointed out that many old hymns have had a word or 2 changed here and there, over the years, which made for better songs. And those changes were done so long ago, we wouldn’t realize, unless we went back to their earliest manuscripts.

    Matt G #17 — I think your question about why we do then entire work at Christmas, when much has nothing to do with His birth, was answered in post #16. The virgin birth was only part of the story. It’s not much without the death & ressurection.

    I’m so glad to see classical fans are also fans of s/g, and vice versa. Maybe some of us are what Bill Gaither calls “musical scytsophrenics”(sp?).

  24. BUICK wrote:


  25. cdguy wrote:

    Thanks, Buick. I new it wasn’t right, but spelchek didn’t help, either.

  26. TN wrote:

    Steve (#20), OucH!!! Funny guy! I’m gigglin’ and I can’t stop!

  27. steve wrote:

    #26, YOU WANT MORE?

  28. TN wrote:

    #27, To answer your question…sure, I’ll take more. Seriously, I’m always up for a bit of sarcastic humor. Thanks for your original A. H. comment. I needed that…Seriously!

  29. Danny wrote:

    44 hallelujahs in the chorus! With everybody singing different parts, it’s almost like convention style singing.

  30. Fareeha wrote:

    I really enjoyed this blog.,Odelia

  31. Abayomi wrote:

    Thanks for sharing these, they are great.,Odelia

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