Even if you don’t know it, you’ve probably heard it. I’m talking about “Hallelujah” from George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. Celebrating the triumph of the Christian savior, Jesus Christ, over death, the “Hallelujah” chorus is so famous that it has become its own thing; if you can’t program the entire oratorio, you’ll definitely program “Hallelujah.” But I’m sure you have some questions. Mainly: what even is an oratorio?
First, we must travel back to the 1700s, to London, England, where George Frideric Handel was flourishing. Born and raised in Germany, George’s career as a composer, conductor, and keyboardist took him to England. He became the 18th-century equivalent of a rock star there when English audiences loved his in-vogue, Italian-style opera, Rinaldo (1711). In the coming years, he was commissioned by and received a pension from the British king; invested in the very unsavory, highly lucrative slave trading enterprise, Royal African Company; and brought English audiences more Italian-style classical music with his organ concertos, suites for keyboard, and the topic of today, oratorios.
Oratorios and operas are very similar: they both use vocalists and instrumentalists to tell a story. But unlike operas, oratorios don’t feature costumes or sets, and the stories they tell are usually drawn from religious sources. The oratorio is in three parts, chronicling the prophecy of a messiah by the prophet Isaiah and the life of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the spreading of his message by the apostle Paul. George’s friend Charles Jennens wrote the story, also known as the libretto, for Messiah. He drew material from the Old Testament of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
Part I of Messiah aligns with the holidays of Advent and Christmas. Advent signals the start of the church year and features a nearly monthly-long celebration to prepare for Christmas Day. Those that celebrate Advent sometimes perform Messiah, Part I in a sing-a-long and tack on “Hallelujah” at the end. But “Hallelujah” actually closes Part II, which covers the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The “Hallelujah” chorus features text from the Book of Revelation, an intense, apocalyptic vision of the end of days and Jesus’ salvation of humanity. Charles focuses on the hope of this book, and George uses different textures to enhance the tension and excitement: 1) homophony (a central theme with accompaniment); 2) unison (everyone sings the same thing at the same time on the same pitch!); and 3) a fugue, where the central theme enters at different times, creating a polyphonic texture that pulls your attention in all different directions.
“Hallelujah” from Messiah shows how Christmas celebrations continue to straddle the religious and secular. For some, it celebrates a figure of immense spiritual importance; for many, it symbolizes a time of year when we celebrate hope, community, and caring for each other.