This chorus is probably the most well-known piece of sacred music in the Western classical canon, and was an early hit. The old tradition of standing during the chorus – now largely abandoned – began in 1743 with the first London performance of the oratorio, as the Scottish poet James Beattie reported in a letter much later. “When Handel’s Messiah was first performed,” Beattie wrote, “the audience was exceedingly struck and affected by the music in general; but when that chorus struck up, ‘For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth’, they were so transported, that they all, together with the king (who happened to be present), started up, and remained standing till the chorus ended: and hence it became the fashion in England for the audience to stand while that part of the music is performing.” Some version of this anecdote is usually to explain the practice – which is mentioned as early as 1756 – but there is no record that the king (George III) ever attended a performance of Messiah during Handel’s lifetime.
The first performance of Messiah took place April 13, 1741, in Dublin, where Handel had gone to present a short season of his music. In subsequent performances Handel changed a number of the solo parts, to meet the need of different performers, but the “Hallelujah” chorus remained an immediately loved constant. The oratorio is in three parts, like the acts of an opera, and the “Hallelujah” chorus concludes Part II, which covers the life and teaching of Christ. Each phrase of the text has a distinctive, utterly apt motif, and Handel mixes them in a seemingly spontaneous paean of joyful praise and awe, but which is also a dramatically paced proceeding of considerable craft.
“[The] last and principal subject proposed, and led off by the bass – ‘And He shall reign for ever and ever’ – is the most pleasing and fertile that has ever been invented since the art of fugue was first cultivated,” the 18th-century English musician and historian Charles Burney enthused. “It is marked, and constantly to be distinguished throughout all the parts, accompaniments, counter-subjects, and contrivances with which it is charged. And, finally, the words ‘King of Kings, and Lord of Lords’, always set to a single sound, which seems to stand at bay, while the other parts attack it in every possible manner, in ’Allelujahs – for ever and ever’, is a most happy and marvelous concatenation of harmony, melody, and great effects.”
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.