For first-time concertgoers attending Handel’s Messiah, you’ll witness one of classical music’s dearest traditions. At the beginning of the majestic ‘Hallelujah’ chorus section of the concert, suddenly, like a well-rehearsed flash mob, the entire audience rises to their feet.
What you’ll learn is that the seemingly spontaneous rising has bemused audiences for centuries.
The question is, where did this tradition come from?
A Royal Mystery or Just a Need to Stretch?
The most widely accepted hypothesis is that King George II stood up during the performance of the chorus at the London premiere in 1743. While it is suggested that the audience stood because it was protocol to stand when the king stood, the motivation behind the king’s action itself is a subject of debate, and no definitive evidence confirms the exact reason.
One compelling viewpoint suggests that King George II stood up at the moment the lyrics “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” were sung, which could be seen as an act of homage to divine authority, aligning the earthly monarchy with the heavenly one. This action can also be interpreted as a political gesture that resonated with the British audience and Parliament, considering George II’s foreign origins and the constitutional monarchy established by William and Mary.
This view posits that the king’s standing was a deliberate and wise acknowledgment of a higher power during tumultuous times, an act that would endear him to his subjects and the Church of England.
Julian Wachner, the esteemed music director of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, offers a less mystical explanation. The tradition could have started inadvertently when the king rose because he was uncomfortable after sitting so long.
Why it Matters
The truth behind this practice might be shrouded in historical hearsay, but one thing’s for sure — it adds a layer of participation and unity to the listening experience. So this season, when you feel that urge to rise, know that you’re part of a tradition that’s as enigmatic as it is Hallelujah!
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