This is a guest post by dr ngo
I just finished singing Handel’s Messiah three more times (my 28th through 30th time with my current choir, far short of the record 118th through 120th set by a fellow bass), and it is indeed a magnificent work. Although there are, in my judgment, more musically inspiring and more emotionally moving movements, the Hallelujah Chorus is by far the best-known and most-loved: here are five versions.
We generally sing and listen to the Hallelujah Chorus out of context, which is perhaps just as well. (And I am a man who usually loves context.) Because if you are actually following the text of Messiah, what you’ll hear is this:
The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed:
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us!
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision.
Thou [God] shall break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
I’m certainly not suggesting that most singers much less listeners have this violent setting in mind when they sing/hear the Hallelujah Chorus. To the contrary, we don’t even notice it. (I’m not sure how many times I had sung this before it sank in.) But what does it say about us when our extreme happiness is not just rooted in comfort and joy about which Messiah has much to say but requires for its perfection, even subconsciously, the smiting of our enemies: laughing them to scorn, dashing them to pieces?
There is, of course, an alternative a cold and broken Hallelujah, as composed and sung by Leonard Cohen. (Some prefer this sung by other performers, such as Jeff Buckley or K.D. Lang. They’re entitled to their opinions, but they’re wrong.)
I leave it to the devout Christians among you to debate whether Handel/Jennens or Cohen better reflects the spirit of Christian rejoicing. I’ll stand on the sidelines and watch.