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Did the king really stand for the Hallelujah chorus? And other Messiah mysteries

Three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and December performances of Handel’s Messiah.

The world’s most famous oratorio appears every holiday season, with hundreds if not thousands of productions by professional and amateur groups around the world. Messiah has been going strong for 275 years and remains among the most-performed works in the classical repertoire. But what makes it so special is hard to define.

“Honestly, I’ve been grappling with the same question,’’ said Doreen Rao, visiting artistic director for the Master Chorale’s 2017-18 season. As music director of the Buffalo Master Chorale and artistic director of the Chicago Chamber Choir, Rao has been involved in her share of Messiahs, and no two are the same.

“Personally, I think it’s because everyone who performs it takes complete and passionate ownership of the music,’’ she said.

Messiah is an oratorio, a large-scale work based on sacred text, but without sets, costumes, or action. Drawing from the Old and New Testaments, Handel designed it in three sweeping sections: Prophecy and Fulfillment, Suffering, and Redemption. Although religious, its message remains universal, and Handel intended it for the concert hall, not the church.

“It’s certainly Biblical in its text but it’s a concert piece, more like an opera,’’ Rao added. “It’s more a form of theater, and that may be why it’s so popular.’’

Handel also wrote Messiah in English, rather than German or Italian, which appealed to the middle class in England and Ireland, where the work first appeared back in the mid-1700s. This also made it easy to digest in the United States, and choral societies quickly got on the Messiah bandwagon.

Musically, the score is a hodgepodge of styles, including Italian (recitative), French (overture), English (anthem), and German (fugal) influences. Handel was, after all, a man of the world.

He also poured his soul into composing Messiah at a difficult period in his life. Several of his Italian operas at the time had been duds, costing him enough to nearly be thrown into debtor’s prison. So he did what any good composer would do: He locked himself in a room and pouted awhile, then began writing in a burst of white-hot inspiration. Trance-like, he finished the score in a remarkable 24 days, going for long periods without food or sleep.

After completing the Hallelujah chorus, the story goes that he exclaimed, “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.” Evidence of this inspiration can be seen on the facsimile of the original score: Notes become increasingly large and spaced apart, as if written in a fury.

The full score is a handful, to say the least, with 53 movements. Many holiday productions cut it in half, but keep the favorites, such as Comfort Ye My People, For Unto Us A Child Is Born, and the Hallelujah chorus. The Florida Orchestra is all in, performing the nearly complete version at about 2.5 hours.

This brings us to the business of standing during that famous chorus, a tradition said to have begun in 1743, when King George II rose from his seat, enthralled by the beauty of the music. Not wanting to offend the king, the audience also stood – or so the story goes.

“There’s really no viable research to suggest it happened, and scholars say it’s a myth,’’ Rao said. “But if you want to stand because it moves you, then you should stand. I think that’s good, because people are yearning to do things together, to celebrate things together. So if standing during the Hallelujah chorus offers you that experience, go for it.’’

This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. Larry Siren

    Legend has it that, during the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” when King George II heard the words “King of kings…” he stood to honor the “King of kings”, Jesus, the Messiah. (It was not at the beginning of the song, or because he was enthralled by its beauty.) Then the audience stood because King George II stood.

  2. Seán Osborne

    It’s a lovely legend, but there’s absolutely no contemporary evidence that it happened. But I love Messiah, and I love to stand when the Hallelujah begins…

  3. Jill Hatton

    I wonder if George II had nodded off and was violently awoken by the noise of the Hallujah chorus.

  4. Patricia F.

    It is downright silly habit perpetuated by people who cannot think for themselves. “All we, like sheep ….”
    There is a theory that if he did stand, for which there is zero evidence, it may have been to relieve his gout.

  5. Patricia F.

    Follow-on from my previous comment, it is nevertheless a wonderful and uplifting chorus (and not at all difficult to sing).

  6. Patricia F.

    Another comment from me, if he stood then everyone else would have had to, not for fear of offending the King but because it would have been deemed to be treason!

  7. Steven Wynn

    In the past I did not like standing during the Hallelujah chorus, but the more people (especially those of our generation) say it’s a silly tradition, the more I believe in doing so.

  8. Willie C Cole

    Your comment here.. Was the King’s mind elsewhere and he thought it was the begining nf am hymn to which we normally stand?

  9. Jo Holcombe

    I have always heard that upon hearing the Hallelujah course, King George issued a decree that from that point forward everyone would stand in honor & recognition of the heavenly King of kings who was the sovereign of all earthly Kings. While this event may be a myth, the statement of an heavenly king being the sovereign of all earthly Kings is true & worthy of people standing in recognition of that fact.

  10. Thomas Ambrosia

    Even if George II did not stand, it was a great honor for all people to Stand for this magnificent piece of music.
    Perhaps he stood because his legs had a cramp, or perhaps nodding off and when he heard the music he stood thinking it was a hymn.
    Whatever to stand, even now and I am 70, I have stood for the chorus cine I first heard it when I was 5 yrs old. I stand for the national anthem of the USA, for the Hail to the Queen now King, and for this chorus. Out of respect yes, but it stirs the soul.
    I think if all of the masters of music were asked to give their highest honor to the composer of one piece of music, i dare say it would be Handel.
    I wish to all my very best wishes for a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanuka, and a Blessed Peaceful New Year

    1. Pamela Hoch

      Lovely! I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you

    2. Dr. Michael Turley

      I just listened to our university vesper choir sing it. I leaped to my feet as the Hallelujah Chorus began. Tears were streaming down my face as it ended.

      No need for legends, myths, or other comments. I stood because it moved me to stand (and shed tears of redemptive joy).

  11. Will Hutchens Esq.

    It is a magnificent piece of music and a grand treasure for all mankind..! The longevity of the messiah is a testament to the greatness of Georg Frederick Handel..!!

  12. Dave Banker

    This is grand and glorious music written by an absolute genius on the very highest subject. Folks who see standing up for it to be inappropriate might better stay home and watch reruns of Archie Bunker!

    1. Jenny


  13. Dennis B

    The Milwaukee Symphony and Chorus (MSO) performed the entire “Messiah” this past December. The performance was equal to, if not better then, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Come the Hallelujah Chorus, the entire audience stood and many of us were singing along.

  14. Dennis B

    The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (MSO) performed the entire “Messiah” this past December. The performance was equal to, if not better then, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Come the Hallelujah Chorus, the entire audience stood and many of us were singing along.

  15. Rev. Glenn Sellick

    As a retired pastor of a liturgical church (Lutheran) who has sung Messiah several times, I suggest a liturgical answer to this question. In a liturgical worship service before the reading of the Gospel text is announced it is indicated to the congregation that it is to stand and sing an Alleluia verse. When I was young it was a simple threefold Alleluia. Therefore, I am suggesting that since performances were first done in churches in England when the audience heard the first word of the chorus “Hallelujah” it automatically rose to stand. Sort of a pavlov’s dog reaction and a tradition was born.

  16. Sand Humphery

    I was at a performance of our local choral Society singing the Messiah. The church was quite full and it was wonderful to see the whole congregation rise for the Hallelujah Chorus. It was both moving and inspiring. The applause for the conductor , singers and instrumentalists was well deserved.

  17. John Jordan

    This a musical setting of the promise of the Resurrection. Nothing more personal yet universal in application. Hence, the longevity.
    As for standing: the text is the Bible. In the Orthodox church when the Bible is presented, the congregation stands. (Sofia Orthi — True Wisdom) In fact, in many Orthodox churches there are no pews. Hence you stand (or kneel) all the time! So we give ourselves and King George II a break — sit for most, but stand when something like a Coronation Anthem (of which Handel wrote a few) is sung.

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