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Preparing a School Winter Solstice Performance
This past week the Nashville Symphony performed our annual string of December Messiah concerts. An annual event featuring a different conductor and vision for the performance of this masterwork each year, it is remarkable to me how resilient Händel’s Messiah is, and how much the community here at the symphony -as well as the larger surrounding community of Music City – looks forward to it every year. It’s one of those monuments of the repertoire that has become part of the collective consciousness.
This year’s performance with guest conductor Christopher Warren-Green brought a historically-informed perspective to the performance, with brisk tempi and the incorporation of a theorbist who doubled on baroque guitar to the continuo section. I was thrilled to hear how excited our musicians were about Messiah this year in conversations I had with them (or overheard) during rehearsals. Sitting in the balcony on Sunday afternoon for the final matinee performance, the enthusiasm of the musicians and the audience was palpable. In the exhilaration following the concert I found myself thinking a lot about this remarkable piece of music, and especially one movement in particular – the unique and absolutely one-of-a-kind Hallelujah Chorus – and why and how it occupies such a singular place in our musical culture.
The Hallelujah Chorus is one of those few but irreplaceable works of art that over time have become imbedded in our culture to the extent that virtually everyone has not only some acquaintance with them, but their own personal history of acquaintance with them. The importance of artworks like this goes far beyond mere cultural reference. There is a reason why these icons endure.
There is no story of the tragedy of earnest young love fallen victim to the violence of an unforgiving society that surpasses that of Romeo & Juliet. There is no painting that describes the vast luminous mystery of the night sky like Van Gogh’s Starry Night. And there is no piece of music that expresses sheer joy and a kind of unfettered and enthusiastic acceptance of the natural order like the Hallelujah Chorus. Whether you subscribe to the theology behind the text or not, the piece lifts you off your feet – it’s that powerful.
Georg Friedrich Händel (1685 – 1759) famously wrote Messiah in a 24-day sprint of inspiration in 1741. The English libretto tell the story of Jesus Christ (the Christian savior or “Messiah”) in three parts – the Hallelujah Chorus is the rousing finale of Part II.
It has long been a tradition to perform work during Advent, never mind the fact that it was actually originally intended to be performed during the Easter season – the libretto only tells the story of the nativity as part of the entire biography of Jesus: this part of the story is described only in the oratorio’s first part.
It has also been a long tradition for the audience to stand up when the orchestra begins to play the introductory strains of the Hallelujah Chorus and remain standing until the final Hallelujah! reverberates through the hall to close Part II. This tradition comes from the story that at the oratorio’s first performance, King George II was in attendance and stood up at the beginning of the movement – and if the king stands up, everyone else in the room does too. Never mind the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any historical evidence that George II was actually there.
In fact, never mind the fact that the cultural associations that have accrued to the piece may not actually have any basis in the original intentions behind it. In fact, they probably don’t. The Hallelujah Chorus is by now an inevitable facet of Western culture, one of the single most ubiquitous pieces in the history of music, instantly recognized by hundreds of millions, if not billions of people all over the world, a monument to Händel’s genius.
It’s an unforgettable tune.
The Hallelujah Chorus has been a part of my sonic inner and sometimes outer world at least since I was a small child, when I first heard it sung by the church choir my mother sang in. Its inclusion was a regular feature of church services I attended growing up, usually at Christmas and Easter, and eventually, after my voice changed and I was able to sing in a mixed choir, I had several experiences singing it in choir myself in high school and college.
The Flash Mob video to rule them all: the Hallelujah Chorus at the mall food court.
If you’re a choral singer, it’s one of those standards you can’t avoid singing from time to time, even if you never get roped into a full-blown Messiah performance.
Why it never occurred to me to bring it to my own students until my very last semester in the classroom I will never know, but I am so glad that I didn’t miss out on the opportunity to introduce a group of teenagers to singing the Hallelujah Chorus for the first time.
In the fall of 2014 I had just managed to purchase a harpsichord for my choir program at Nashville School of the Arts, and I was casting about for repertoire that would take advantage of this new addition to our resources to include in our annual winter solstice performance that December. I decided to teach the Hallelujah Chorus to the NSA Festival Choir, which consisted of about 100 students that year – all of the choir program’s students combined in one choir. As I was also directing the school’s orchestra program, the idea of including some of our more advanced instrumentalists to form a small “baroque” orchestra for the performance was a very attractive idea. So it’s just what we did.
I have rarely seen a choral work capture the hearts of high school students like the Hallelujah Chorus. We began working on it in the second or third week of October, and the students had mastered it by Halloween. With still more than a month before the performance to go, students would routinely ask to sing it as every rehearsal in every choir. I had to be careful not to overdo it, and wear out everyone’s enthusiasm for the piece, but we continued to sing it at least once or twice a week up until the performance in the first week of December. I often left the door to choir room open, and many times we would finish singing through the Hallelujah Chorus and I would turn and see a group of students and teachers gathered outside in the hallway, grinning.
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If you’re a high school chorus teacher, I would strongly encourage you to consider bringing the Hallelujah Chorus to your students. It would make a fine addition to your winter solstice program or any holiday program – of course – but it would also be welcome on nearly any other program, any time of year. You will have the privilege and the honor of being the teacher who led the young human beings in your care to this sublime masterpiece – and you will have the unforgettable experience of seeing the joy with which they respond to it.
The Hallelujah Chorus performed by the Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood at Westminster Abbey, London, 1982. Händel is buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey.
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Preparing a School Winter Solstice Performance:
Christmas in July <– START HERE
The Hallelujah Chorus