Handel’s Messiah his is a really common oratorio to hear around Christmastime, and many orchestras put on performances of it in December. The Hallelujah Chorus is the most famous movement from Messiah.
Today we’ll talk a little about the oratorio as a whole, but we’re going to hone in on the famous Hallelujah chorus specifically. We’ll talk a little about musical texture, structure, and musical effects.
Handel’s Messiah: Basic info
Handel’s epic “Messiah” oratorio was written in 1741. It’s over 2 hours long, has three parts and 53 movements. It was written for SATB chorus and soloists, originally with simple instrumentation:
Performances of Messiah nowadays are usually quite huge, but in Handel’s day it was much smaller. Depending on the orchestra, you could hear a wide range of performance styles, from small and intimate to huge and epic.
The nice thing about Handel for us English-speaking people is that he wrote for London audiences, meaning he sometimes wrote in English – like this oratorio.
Text of the Hallelujah Chorus
The text source for this oratorio is the King James Bible, compiled by Charles Jennens. This is the text of Charles Jennen’s version:
|: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! : |
|: For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! : |
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
|: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! : |
The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
For ever and ever, forever and ever,
King of kings, and Lord of lords,
|: King of kings, and Lord of lords, : |
And Lord of lords,
And He shall reign,
And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings, forever and ever,
And Lord of lords,
And He shall reign forever and ever,
|: King of kings! and Lord of lords! : |
And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings! and Lord of lords!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Backstory to the writing of Messiah
Handel was a huge proponent of Italian opera in England in the early 1700s, and wrote more than 40 of them. But by the 1730s, audiences weren’t as interested in them anymore. Handel started shifting gears to accommodate people’s changing tastes, and began to write English-language oratorios – such as Messiah.
Story of Messiah
The Christian-centric story of Messiah is all about Jesus (who is the Messiah), and it’s in three parts.
The first part starts with prophecies from guys like Isaiah, and Jesus’ birth. The second part is all about the Passion (essentially the end of Jesus’ life) – and it’s at the very end of this second part where we hear the “Hallelujah” chorus. The third part is the story of Jesus rising from the dead and eternal life.
What’s interesting about Messiah is how it’s not over-dramatized. The librettist Charles Jennens was very specific about not dramatizing Jesus’ life, wanting to make it more about the “Mystery of Godliness”.
However, the text used in Messiah is pretty cryptic, so you’d need a pretty good understanding of Jesus’ life already to be able to make sense of it.
Composition of Handel’s Messiah
Amazingly, Handel wrote the music for Messiah in 24 days. That’s 259 pages of music and over 2 hours of run-time.
But Handel (and other composers of the time) were known for writing very large works quickly. Handel had practice at this with his 40+ preceding operas, many of which he completed in a similar time frame.
That being said, Handel continued to edit and revise Messiah for over a decade after it was originally completed, so to some extent it was an ongoing work in progress (which was also common with musicians at the time).
Reception to Handel’s Messiah was originally lukewarm, but it gained momentum as time passed. It grew in popularity in the 1750s and beyond, after Handel’s death. In the late 1700s, Messiah started to be altered for larger-scale performances with hundreds of performers.
Mozart was commissioned to make his own version of it, which he did by reducing its scale and adding instruments like flutes. Mozart himself said that the changes weren’t trying to make Messiah better – it was just a different spin on it.
Structure of Handel’s Messiah
A full discussion of the entire oratorio is beyond the scope of this video, but here’s a look at its overall structure. You can see it’s arranged into 3 parts, then scenes, and then individual movements. The Hallelujah chorus is the 44th movement, at the very end of part 2.
- Scene 1: Isaiah’s Prophecy of Salvation
- Sinfony (instrumental)
- Comfort ye my people (tenor)
- Ev’ry valley shall be exalted (tenor)
- And the glory of the Lord (chorus)
- Scene 2: The Coming Judgment
- Thus saith the Lord of hosts (bass)
- But who may abide the day of His coming (alto or bass)
- And he shall purify the sons of Levi (chorus)
- Scene 3: The Prophecy of Christ’s Birth
- Behold, a virgin shall conceive (alto)
- O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (alto and chorus)
- For behold, darkness shall cover the earth (bass)
- The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light (bass)
- For unto us a child is born (chorus)
- Scene 4: The Annunciation to the Shepherds
- Pifa (“pastoral symphony”: instrumental)
14a. There were shepherds abiding in the fields (soprano)
14b. And lo, the angel of the Lord (soprano)
- And the angel said unto them (soprano)
- And suddenly there was with the angel (soprano)
- Glory to God in the highest (chorus)
- Scene 5: Christ’s Healing and Redemption
- Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion (soprano)
- Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened (soprano)
- He shall feed his flock like a shepherd (alto and soprano)
- His yoke is easy (chorus)
- Scene 1: Christ’s Passion
- Behold the Lamb of God (chorus)
- He was despised and rejected of men (alto)
- Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (chorus)
- And with his stripes we are healed (chorus)
- All we like sheep have gone astray (chorus)
- All they that see him laugh him to scorn (tenor)
- He trusted in God that he would deliver him (chorus)
- Thy rebuke hath broken his heart (tenor or soprano)
- Behold and see if there be any sorrow (tenor or soprano)
- Scene 2: Christ’s Death and Resurrection
- He was cut off (tenor or soprano)
- But thou didst not leave his soul in hell (tenor or soprano)
- Scene 3: Christ’s Ascension
- Lift up your heads, O ye gates (chorus)
- Scene 4: Christ’s Reception in Heaven
- Unto which of the angels (tenor)
- Let all the angels of God worship Him (chorus)
- Scene 5: The Beginnings of Gospel Preaching
- Thou art gone up on high (soprano)
- The Lord gave the word (chorus)
- How beautiful are the feet (soprano)
- Their sound is gone out (chorus)
- Scene 6: The World’s Rejection of the Gospel
- Why do the nations so furiously rage together (bass)
- Let us break their bonds asunder (chorus)
- He that dwelleth in heaven (tenor)
- Scene 7: God’s Ultimate Victory
- Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron (tenor)
- Hallelujah (chorus)
- Scene 1: The Promise of Eternal Life
- I know that my Redeemer liveth (soprano)
- Since by man came death (chorus)
- Scene 2: The Day of Judgment
- Behold, I tell you a mystery (bass)
- The trumpet shall sound (bass)
- Scene 3: The Final Conquest of Sin
- Then shall be brought to pass (alto)
- O death, where is thy sting (alto and tenor)
- But thanks be to God (chorus)
- If God be for us, who can be against us (soprano)
- Scene 4: The Acclamation of the Messiah
- Worthy is the Lamb (chorus)
Nowadays we tend to associate Messiah with something grand and epic, but Handel’s original vision was one of restraint. He was really careful to avoid too much drama. For example, there are only a few points in the whole oratorio where you hear trumpet (including the Hallelujah chorus). Handel deliberately kept the trumpet sparse to maximize their impact when they do kick in.
Handel’s Hallelujah chorus
The Hallelujah chorus is written in the key of D major and includes big instruments like trumpets and timpani.
The form is through-composed (which basically just means it’s random), but it does have a refrain – when the voices sing “hallelujah”.
The text from this part is from the Book of Revelations, 19:6.
Opening lines of the Hallelujah Chorus
The opening of the Hallelujah chorus begins with the choir singing a single melody line (homophony) with the word “hallelujah”. You’ll notice that there are a lot of melodic seconds used throughout this intro, and throughout the piece as a whole.
Hallelujah Chorus: Imitative polyphony
Throughout the piece, the texture switches from homophony (all voices following the same melody) to polyphony, where there are multiple melodies happening at once. About 30-45 seconds into the piece, after the homophonic intro, we get our first taste of Baroque-style polyphony.
This polyphony uses a new line, “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth”, which is interspersed with echoes of “Hallelujah”, which serves as a link throughout the entire song.
In order to create interest and excitement, Handel enjoyed playing with dramatic contrasts in the dynamics. After the bright “Hallelujah” opening carries on for some time, there’s a volume drop and a mood change, which is immediately preceded by horns and a forte volume.
When the voices sing “The kingdom of this world is become”, we get a four-part chorale-like setting.
Hallelujah Chorus: More polyphony
After our highly-contrasted dynamic part, we have another section of polyphony, multiple melodies interweaving together. This section is more specifically a fugue (a type of polyphony), which is where one melody echoes the other, often in multiple parts.
King of kings
In the “King of Kings” section, soprano voices sing a single note, which is interspersed with our chorus, “Hallelujah”. This note gets higher and higher, building up tension and suspense.
Hallelujah Chorus Ending
This continues until the words are sung in unison (“king of kings and lord of lords”) until the triumphant ending on that repeated “Hallelujah” motif. Bringing all of the voices back together ties up the song nicely, and makes for a more satisfying and triumphant ending.
If you listen to the Hallelujah chorus in full, you’ll notice that after the “stop”, there is a final, slower “Hallelujah” to finish off the tune.
I hope you enjoyed today’s tour of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus from his epic oratorio Messiah. Linked below is the full 2+ hour version of Handel’s Messiah, as well as the excerpt of the Hallelujah Chorus.
Merry Christmas, my friends!
Performed by: Orchestra Gli Armonici
Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0