If you are someone who frequents the outbreak of Handel’s Messiah that crops up at Christmas and Easter, you’ll find yourself asking that age-old question: Should I stand up for the Hallelujah chorus? There’s more to this question than just a decision on whether to stretch your legs in the middle of a two-hour performance.

Legend has it that in 1743, the British monarch King George II was so moved by Handel’s Hallelujah chorus that he stood out of respect for the “Lord of Lords,” the only authority above his own. When the king stands, everybody stands. And since then everyone has followed suit.

In truth, nobody knows for sure if that ever happened. There is no eyewitness account of it. The first known mention comes 37 years later, in a letter by James Beattie, relating the story secondhand: “The King (who happened to be present), started up, and remained standing … and hence it became the fashion.’’

Why did it take 37 years for someone to mention this?

I’m inclined to believe this was simply a convenient story and, in fact, everyone was standing up for other reasons. There are accounts of people standing up and sitting down all over the place in early performances of Handel’s Messiah. That’s partly because they loved the music (it really is a great piece), and partly because they were confused about the words, which come straight from the Bible.

 

Charles Jennens was the librettist of Handel’s Messiah.

Librettist Charles Jennens gathered a collection of biblical passages for Handel to use, and if you read them carefully they don’t really tell one specific story.

“What is this,” the people said, “a hymn? A prayer? An opera? A sermon? Are we an audience or a congregation?”

To cover all the bases, they stood up and sat down a lot.

Over the years they probably got tired of all of this exercise, and pared it down to the one chorus, the most famous chorus, and made up a grand story about King George standing up – just so they could all sit down for the rest of it.

Here are links to performances of Handel's Messiah coming up this weekend:

Victoria, B.C.
Emmanuel Baptist Church invites you to Handel's Messiah
Friday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 7 at 2:30 p.m.

Montreal, QC
I Musici de Montreal presents Handel's Messiah
Friday, April 6, 7:30 p.m. at La Maison symphonique de Montreal

So what do you do? Do you stand? Do you sit? Do you look around and see what everyone else is doing before you make your move? Do you think about the monarchy, the hierarchy, snubbing authority and all that? Or are you happy to just get up off your seat?

Vote in our survey:

 

posted by Jeff Reilly on Apr 04, 2012