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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:

 

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Stand or sit dilemma for Handel’s Messiah

If you are someone who frequents the outbreak of Handel’s Messiah that crops up at Christmas and East…

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Augmented Sixth
#1 posted by
Augmented Sixth
on Apr 04, 2012

Nice blog. I love Handel's Messiah, but I often get the feeling people stand during the Hallelujah chorus to show everone else that they *know* this is an old tradition. I think it distracts everyone (audience, orchestra, choir) from what's going on. I'd just prefer if everyone remained seated and enjoyed the music. At this time of year (i.e. Holy Week) I love to hear the Passion sequence in the Messiah, starting with the tenor arioso "Thy rebuke." It chokes me up. I hope this lovely website is not touched by the cuts to the CBC's budget.

Fawn Fritzen
#2 posted by
Fawn Fritzen
on Apr 04, 2012

I rather like the tradition. What other traditions similar to this do we have? Not too many people left going to Catholic churches anymore.

Incidentally, the version of the story I heard as a child is that the King stood up because he was tired of sitting through the lengthy performance.

phiguy
#3 posted by
phiguy
on Apr 08, 2012

when you listen to this music with heart and ear, you know exactly what to do when the hallelujah piece begins. Thinking about it, distorts what you are feeling about it.

phiguy
#4 posted by
phiguy
on Apr 08, 2012

I believe charles Jennens was inspired when he selected the pieces from the bible. Each part of the oratorium resonates with a particular part in me, which seems to be part of a process of inner restoration to a deeper level of inner sanity and grounding in day to day life.

Rebecca Hass
#5 posted by
Rebecca Hass
on Apr 09, 2012

As someone who regularly is an alto soloist in this work,  I confess that I always get caught napping a bit when the Hallelujah chorus comes up (or as singers sometimes joke, the 'what's it to you' chorus)  I have to stand, but i also have to sing it.  Or look like I am.  Mostly I find my colleagues and I lip sync along and smile.  I'm not sure I ever really learned that number!

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