The Pure Power Of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’

Simplicity, it turns out, is the secret to the success of Handel's ever-popular "Hallelujah Chorus."(Photo: istockphoto)
Simplicity, it turns out, is the secret to the success of Handel's ever-popular "Hallelujah Chorus."(Photo: istockphoto)

The “Hallelujah Chorus,” from George Frideric Handel‘s Messiah, is such an iconic piece of music — and is so ingrained as a Christmas tradition — that it’s easy to take its exuberance and its greatness for granted.

That’s where Rob Kapilow comes in. The composer-conductor joins Performance Today host Fred Child to look deeper into the structure of Handel’s popular little chorus to discover why the music has such a powerful grip on singers and listeners — all the way back to King George II of England, who (legend has it) began the tradition of standing during its performance.

Much of the power of the piece, Kapilow says, lies behind the rhythm of the word hallelujah. Handel could have assigned the four syllables of the word to four notes of equal length. But that would be boring — and it wouldn’t be Handel, Kapilow says.

“What makes Handel great,” Kapilow says, “is that first note is lengthened and then we explode at the end. We have this HAAAA-le-lu-jah.”

Another key to the chorus’ power is in what Kapilow calls the “King of Kings” section.

“The thing that’s so amazing about it,” Kapilow says, “is that it’s actually based on one of the simplest ideas you could possibly imagine: a single note repeated over and over again; one note per syllable — ‘king – of – kings’ and ‘lord – of – lords.’ ”

But Handel keeps repeating the passage in higher and higher registers. “Each one seems to be the highest you could possibly get,” Kapilow says. “That’s the climax of the piece.”

To hear the previous feature, click here.

For a full archive of What Makes It Great, click here.

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