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The story behind the song "Hallelujah Chorus"




A Brief Background on Handel’s Messiah

Handel’s crowning achievement, Messiah, was not an immediate success. In 1741, Handel was heavily in debt following a string of musical failures. It seemed that his career was over and he may even be forced to go to debtors’ prison. On April 8, 1741, Handel gave what he believed to be his final concert.


Later that year, two key events changed the course of Handel’s life and the landscape of music forever—his friend Charles Jennens wrote a libretto taken from the Bible, based on the life of Jesus Christ, and gave it to Handel. Then, Handel was given funding by a group of charities from Dublin, Ireland, to compose a new work for a benefit performance that would help free men from debtors’ prison. Handel would also receive his own commission for composing the work, which in turn helped him on his path to reversing his own misfortune.


The composition of Messiah, the complete 260-page oratorio, began on August 22, 1741, and was composed in just 24 days, when Handel finished the final orchestration on September 14, 1741.



History of “Hallelujah” Chorus

Handel composed Messiah without getting much sleep or even eating much food. When his assistants brought him his meals, they were often left uneaten. His servants would often find him in tears as he composed. When he completed “Hallelujah,” he reportedly told his servant, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of Angels.”


Although the first performance in Dublin on April 13, 1742, was a huge success, Messiah wasn’t met with the same excitement in London the following season. Six scheduled performances were cancelled by Handel in 1743, Messiah was completely removed from the 1744 schedule, and it wasn’t performed in London until 1749.


In another reversal of fortunes, London’s Foundling Hospital held a fundraising concert, where Handel performed a mix of new music and well as older pieces including the “Hallelujah” chorus. At the time, Messiah was still somewhat unknown to London audiences, but the concert was so well received that Handel was invited back the next year, where he performed the entire Messiah oratorio. Performances of Messiah became an Eastertime tradition at the Foundling Hospital until the 1770s. Earnings from many early performances of the oratorio were used to help the poor, needy, orphaned, widowed, and sick.


In 1910 the Mormon Tabernacle Choir made its first recordings, which included the “Hallelujah” chorus; this was most likely the first recording of Messiah music outside of England. It was also the first recording of a Messiah piece to use an established choir, as all early recordings were made using temporary choirs comprised of provisional singers.


Text for “Hallelujah” comes from the book of Revelation in the New Testament. Revelation 19:6: “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” Revelation 19:16: “And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.” Revelation 11:15 reads, “And he shall reign for ever and ever.”

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