Thinking Out Loud

December 14, 2010

Hallelujah Chorus: Should Audiences Still Stand?

Filed under: Christmas, music — Tags: , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:51 pm

We live in a world where many formal traditions are dying out.   I was thinking a few days ago how the mug has replaced the cup and saucer.   How a generation of North American men don’t know how to tie a tie.   How the courtesy of a reply to a letter has gone the way of the dinosaur.

Wikipedia tells us the origin of the tradition under consideration here:

In many parts of the world, it is the accepted practice for the audience to stand for this section of the performance. The tradition is said to have originated with the first London performance of Messiah, which was attended by King George II. As the first notes of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus rang out, the king rose to his feet and remained standing until the end of the chorus. Royal protocol has always dictated that when the monarch stands, everyone in their presence is also required to stand. Thus, the entire audience and orchestra stood when the king stood during the performance, initiating a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries.   It is lost to history the exact reason why the King stood at that point, but the most popular explanations include:

  • He was so moved by the performance that he rose to his feet.
  • Out of tribute to the composer.
  • As was and is the custom, one stands in the presence of royalty as a sign of respect. The Hallelujah chorus clearly places Christ as the King of Kings. In standing, King George II accepts that he too is subject to the Lord of Lords.
  • He had been dozing and woke with a start.

But it could be argued that, “that was then and this is now.”   I mean, if historians can’t agree as to the why, it really leaves us with a tradition that is somewhat empty.

So, with Handel’s Messiah being performed frequently at this time of the year, should audiences continue the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus? Be sure to read the comments and take a moment to add yours.

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41 Comments »

  1. “So, with Handel’s Messiah being performed frequently at this time of the year, should audiences continue the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus?“

    Should church audiences continue the tradition of retaining the notion that the organ is the only instrument that should be used during sacred worship services, instead of drums, electric guitars, etc?

    A lot of what I would consider respect for reverence during church worship has greatly diminished. For me, Handel’s Messiah has more entertainment value than that of liturgical worship, so it wouldn’t bother me the least to sit during the whole performance — it doesn’t add to or diminish the effect or intention of the performance. When in Rome (the King’s presence) then do as in Rome if that is apropos; and when somewhere else where it is not the convention or tradition, then do likewise.

    Comment by Paul B — December 14, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

  2. I will just say this…even if no one else stood with me, I would stand. There is something so overwhelmingly noble and breathtaking about that tribute to Christ…Messiah! I envision heaven when that last song is sung and cannot conceive of sitting! I hope that the tradition remains.

    Comment by Cynthia — December 14, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

    • That’s the view I lean to as well. It means that yes, there is this quirky tradition about one particular piece of music.

      But the payoff is huge: It draws us into the power of the lyrics.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 14, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

    • I attended a Mannheim Steamroller concert this weekend. Toward the end of the concert they performed Handel’s Messiah. It was glorious! No one stood. However, when it came to the part where my mind knew the words, “King of Kings, forever and ever…” began, I could not remain seated! I had to stand out of honor for my King. After several stanza’s someone behind me asked me to sit down, they couldn’t see. I was so sad. I did not want to creat a problem but, God knows in my heart I was still standing!

      Comment by Wendy — December 11, 2012 @ 8:26 am

      • Bravo! This morning I attended an Easter Service and automatically stood up when they began singing the Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah. I was the only one in the entire congregation who was on their feet besides the choir. While I am sure some were embarrassed for me, my heart felt full of the message. I, too, have sung it with dozens of groups and am now 76 and my voice is not longer good enough to sing it, but I can still rise to the occasion and felt sad that others did know or realize they should have been standing, too. I doubt the last explanation cited above was true. How could anyone doze off during Handel’s “Messiah”, which by the way was written by this magnificent talent, in 14 days! Please carry on the tradition, whether in praise of God, or praise of the composer, it is worthy of rising to our feet!

        Comment by Charlotte "Toni" Brendel — April 20, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

      • Good for you! Wow, Handel’s Messiah for Easter…I have never heard it performed for Easter but really there isn’t a better time!

        Comment by Wendy — April 20, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

  3. Me again!

    I found this in my files after writing today’s post:

    http://christianity201.wordpress.com/2010/11/10/taking-the-message-to-the-streets-and-malls/

    Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 14, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  4. Having sung in many performances of Messiah, I can only state that the power and majesty of the Halleluja Chorus simply prompts the audience to stand, especially if they feel the urge to join in and sing along. As for the various traditions surrounding the standing, I have my own theory. Raised catholic, during sunday mass, it was proper to stand when any form of Halleluja was sung preceding the reading of the Gospel. While the Hallelujah is not sung during lent, another appropriate song of praise is sung, and the congregation still stands as it is still announcing a reading from the gospels.

    Comment by david — December 21, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  5. Having sung the Messiah many times, I feel moved to stand at either the singing or the playing of the Hallelujah Chorus. It is a tradition, the same as standing when the flag passes by that I will observe as long as I live. The power of the words are so great that I am moved to stand in awe of my Lord. If I am the only one, as I have been many times in our new society when the flag passes, so be it.

    Comment by Buddy D — January 3, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

  6. Interesting. I have performed Messiah on MANY occasions (numbering at least 20) and used to find it a very moving experience that the entire audience stood. I now find that it is very disruptive and halts the flow of the music. Not only is the magnificent introduction to the movement often drowned out by the noise of an audience rising, the final bars of the preceding tenor aria are often ruined by the shuffling of people in their seats waiting to stand. I am due to conduct a performance in the next few weeks – there will be an explanation in the audience’s program that I do NOT wish them to stand; giving the reasons above. I trust that the musical flow or the whole work will be restored. Besides, current thinking is that King George II just needed to use the lavatory…

    Comment by Mark J — March 23, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    • Let us know how that goes. I wonder if there are a few out there who have already made a religion out of standing, and will not abide by your request. I hope not, but…

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 23, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

  7. It is absolutely un-American to stand. Why are we still honoring the grandfather of George III? Read the Declaration of Independence. Americans have repudiated monarchy. Standing has NOTHING to do with religion, only serfdom.

    Comment by Kris Cooper — April 24, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

    • “Why are we still honoring the grandfather of George III?”

      Huh? Who says we’re honouring the grandfather of George III? When I stand, it’s in honour of the King of Kings!!! Hallelujah!!!

      Comment by mwlahn — December 8, 2011 @ 8:15 am

      • Hi Murray. Years ago I attended a large church — just a few blocks from where you live — and the pastor referred to “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” as “the national anthem of the church.” Whether or not you agree with that designation, I like the idea of a church having a special anthem, so to speak, and the Hallelujah Chorus certainly would be a nominee, were it not for the technical complexity of singing it.

        Hey, maybe that’s a good reason for standing, out of respect for the choir and orchestra!

        Okay, seriously, I like your reason, and I think that is uppermost in the minds of many as they are standing. A modern worship equivalent would be Revelation Song. You can’t stay seated for that one. Or Majesty. Or How Great is Our God.

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 8, 2011 @ 10:17 am

  8. I strongly feel that we should still be standing. I find that the ignorance of people and history is clearly shown by those who remain seated. Take a stance and STAND for a change. Why not?

    Comment by Tammy Rdz — December 1, 2011 @ 10:03 pm

  9. I too, have performed the Messiah on many occasions. There is nothing to say that we have to stand while the Hallelujah Chorus is sung, but there is nothing that says we have to say when our team scores a touchdown either, but we do. Not because we have to, but it adds to the excitement of the “performance.” Those who don’t want to get excited or show any signs of emotion can sit and go home dulled by the performance.

    Comment by Wes B. — December 4, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

  10. I was told as a youngster that this was sort of the national anthem of music. We always stood. Went to Boston Pops Christmas concert today and no one stood. Interesting.

    Comment by Marsha BR — December 8, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

    • Was today’s concert actually in Boston? Given the sense of history and tradition there, that’s really surprising. (Okay, so nothing is surprising anymore, right?)

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 8, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

  11. Well,I just, (Dec 10th 2011) attended a performance at The Royal Festival Hall London of Messiah.
    The WHOLE audience(about 3,000) stood for the Hallelujah Chorus.I don’t know why the tradition started,but really it doesn’t bother me.Like another poster here I find it a fitting tribute to the genius of Handel,and because the chorus is such a moving piece of work.
    I think Handel might be astounded to learn that nearly 300 years after it’s first performance (in Dublin in 1741) Messiah was still being given,and was just as popular as ever.
    It was also nice to think (during the concert) that Handel was not more than half a mile away in his tomb in Westminster Abbey.

    Comment by Gordon — December 11, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

  12. Here in Nigeria, tis alwys a diff. mood entirely wen it’s rendered wif d Congregation standin. Dis Traditon shudnt b discarded as it hlps transcend 1to a higher level of worship

    Comment by Ephraim Ekpo — December 23, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

  13. To the King of Kings celebrated by Handel’s majestic and fitting work—-of course we should stand.

    Comment by Ed Goodwin — November 25, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

  14. I agree. When you are moved by a performance…what better way to show it than standing. I love tradition.

    Comment by Doris — December 1, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

  15. I will (if I am able) stand I was at a concert in which the Hallelujah was performed and the audience stood up and
    gave its approval AMEN

    Comment by alfred smith — December 15, 2012 @ 10:44 am

  16. Being a fan of audience traditions, I thought it rather exciting when everyone stood for the Hallelujah chorus at the recital of the Messiah that I went to see last night in Melbourne. It was the first time I became aware of such a tradition, and I feel sad that it is not more well known. I think it made the music feel more alive and glorious that everyone was standing up to listen (though in this case the orchestra remained seated) – about two thousand people and the soloists facing the chorus is an amazing sight. I also thought that somehow it was easier to listen standing up, just as it is easier to sing standing up. I do not think belief in God or regard for monarchy is *necessary* to continue the tradition, because it can be done for its own sake. Every year at the very end to the BBC Proms the audience begins to sing Auld Lang Syne of its own accord – imagine if the very first person years ago did not begin singing it, or if nobody else joined in, there would now, at the end of that program, be no real sense of community or togetherness anymore. These traditions bring people together, so they are as one, and that is a sense of community that we need more of in this day and age.

    Comment by Mina — December 16, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

  17. Tradition and respect are two wonderful things which sadly are being diluted in todays world. I was at a performance of The Messiah last night when only half the audience stood. Looking at the faces after the performance you could see who had been moved by the majesty and revelation of that chorus. The remainder I am sure will celebrate Christmas by saying Bah Humbug. Therein lies a lot of the problems we face in the world today.Relax and immerse yourselves in the message and spirit of the music, and remember without tradition and respect we have nothing.

    Comment by Murray — December 21, 2012 @ 5:39 am

  18. What is wrong with tradition and showing respect. Too many young people seem to tear down these things their parents and grandparents respected in order to do what, I wonder. They are very shallow and empty people who seem to wish to create a void with nothing constructive or positive with which to fill that void, unless you call partying, getting hammered, indulging in meaningless sex and drug abuse constructive.

    I honour who or what I personally believe ought to be honoured whether it be the Hallelujah Chorus or a lady entering a room. I stand because I would like to be seen as a gentleman!

    Comment by John Davidson — December 23, 2012 @ 12:12 am

  19. Why not, it’s such a long peice it’s good to stretch the legs!

    Comment by Slates — December 23, 2012 @ 3:08 am

    • Hi Slates.

      When King George II allegedly stood at the first Covent Garden performance of the Messiah, various pundits of the day tried to explain ‘Why?’

      They came up with about four reasonable explanations, one of which was indeed to ‘stretch his legs’. I think that’s called ‘Royal Cramp’ below the neck. Not to be confused with the ‘above the neck’ variant from which they also regularly suffer!

      Comment by John Davidson — December 23, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

  20. I’m not normally a musical person. But last year I joined a choir at our local church to learn, rehearse and sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the Christmas Day (and eve) services. I LOVED IT!!! Fortunately I was surrounded by plenty of competent singers, so I could belt out my part without fear of ruining the performance for others. It was awesome!!! I’ve never enjoyed worship so much. I sang my lungs out. The words are straight from Revelation and are such a wonderful declaration of Jesus victory and Kingship. And I honestly think the music is divinely inspired.

    I am so looking forward to getting to heaven and, if they’ll let me, to sneak into the bass section with the angels and sing: “Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth! The kingdom of this earth is become the Kingdom of our Lord! And He shall reign for ever and ever!”

    I will most definitely be STANDING; arms raised, worshipping with all my heart at the top of my lungs!

    Comment by Ian — January 26, 2013 @ 2:20 am

    • Amen! I can’t wait either! It’s coming soon!

      Comment by Wendy — January 26, 2013 @ 11:41 am

  21. I stand for one simple reason – Hallelujah is simply the best single piece of music ever composed, in any genre. It is beyond music, and has a transformational power that nothing else does. Rarely do we get to experience perfection – this composition is one of those times, whatever George II did.

    Comment by David Persons — March 23, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

  22. Cynthia, I’m glad to find someone who would stand with me. Today, on Easter mass in our church, the choir began the Hallelujah Chorus and I immediately stood as I have done all my life. I realized immediately no one else in the whole church stood but I continued standing until the end.

    Comment by Mary — April 1, 2013 @ 12:41 am

  23. Yes,I think the tradition of Stading up while singing the Halleluyah Chorus should continue because it makes the song unique from all other songs, it also registers a kind of feeling that is unexplainable.

    Comment by Ebe Samson Oladosu — August 23, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  24. […] Well, I suppose this is not something as serious as what we shared during last Friday’s devotion night: “堅持真理絕不妥協; 與真理無關之事絕不強硬”…  Apparently there have been discussions about standing vs sitting too, especially in free America: http://paulwilkinson.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/hallelujah-chorus-should-audiences-still-stand/ […]

    Pingback by What’s important? | thoughts, random or not — September 17, 2013 @ 2:31 am

  25. Every Christmas season the music department of a university here in Manila conducts an outreach program with a performance of Handel’s Messiah. People appreciate the complexity not just of the “Hallelujah” but of the other parts as well. Of course, most of them understand the lyrics of the songs, and have a vague idea of how “Messiah” progresses from prophecy to fulfillment and then prophecy again. The performance always ends with the Hallelujah, and by then the audience have become so worked up that it’s just natural to stand, all the way to the encore.

    Comment by karl — October 25, 2013 @ 3:57 am

  26. As long as I am still able, I will stand.

    Comment by T Jordan — December 9, 2013 @ 10:04 am

  27. Ha ha ha. Is all I have to say. Just came from the full performance in one of the great acoustical halls. Disney in la. The standing sheep seriously degraded the sound. I guess I did not know I was going to church, or the king’s court!

    Comment by Bob — December 23, 2013 @ 2:05 am

    • I don’t normally respond to the comments here, but out of all the ones posted here over three years, this one really takes the cake. “Standing Sheep”? How about “informed concert-goers”?

      I suppose the “standing sheep” at the seventh inning of a baseball game also block your view of the field.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 23, 2013 @ 8:46 am

  28. […] Christmas concert and we were asked by our choir director to tell our parents and guests in the audience to stand when the opening chords were struck on the piano.  We were told that this has been a tradition […]

    Pingback by Greetings from a desert island: Songs to last a lifetime | After the kids leave — February 17, 2014 @ 12:03 am

  29. Hobart Tasmania just had it’s first abridged sing along Messiah under conductor Richard Gill and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra where people could pay to join the choir and sing, sitting in the front rows of the auditorium. In the performance Richard banned the choir from standing during the Hallelujah Chorus because of the cacophony of banging of the theatre seats when the choir rose to sing. He got us to demonstrate to the audience in the performance by standing, and said “I rest my case!” Although the audience were free to stand if they wished, no one that I could see seemed to….Bobby B

    Comment by Bob Burgess — May 11, 2014 @ 4:23 am

  30. There are many traditions that unfortunately have gone by the wayside as we become more and more informal. The Messiah stirs the heart and the emotions for many different reasons unique to oneself and the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus cannot help but uplift the soul. Frequently we stand at the conclusion of an exceptional performance; not because we have to, but to recognize something exceptional. I never had a good singing voice, but sang in choirs that performed the Messiah. I still can ‘hear’ the bass part and never cease to feel the emotion in the music and the words being sung. Standing is a tradition that does not need explanation, but to avoid confusion, it would be appreciated if an announcement would be made within the program or at the start of the performance.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Robert Newton — November 20, 2014 @ 10:48 am


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