This weekend, I encountered something that I had never seen before--standing during the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. Maybe I'm an uncultured boob, but in all my years of singing this piece as a member of the choir at Church of the Master United Methodist, I never once encountered such a tradition!
It all happened at the Niles Choir Festival, held at First Christian Church on Sunday afternoon. After each choir sang a few numbers, the entire ensemble gathered for a stirring rendition of the "Hallelujah," which in itself was strange for me, since I am of the impression that the "Hallelujah" or "Alleluia" of our liturgy gets "buried" during Lent. In fact, I know of one church where they literally buried the word "Alleluia" in the ground, only to dig it up again on Easter morning!
As the first few bars of Handel's mastework were played on the organ, some members of the congregation, exchanging knowing glances, stood to their feet, followed by others, and still others, until all the congregation (including me--I rose out of sheer embarrasment for not rising!) were on their feet. And we stood. . .and stood. . .and stood, until the piece was over.
It was not until today, as I was thinking about it again, that I looked this strange little custom up on the internet, and found that it is indeed customary for audiences to stand during the "Hallelujah Chorus." There are various sources for this tradition, but the one that cracked me up was the one that said that George II (of England) stood during the playing of the piece when it premiered in London. Now, there are some who doubt the reasons given for his standing (that he was moved by the music or that he was standing to relieve his gout), or even that he was at the premiere itself, but this odd quirk leads me to ask some questions:
1. If everyone else in the audience stood when the king stood, as the legend suggests, then why do American audiences still hold to this practice? Surely, our independence from Great Britain would have moved early hearers of this legend to eschew this practice.
2. Why do such traditions persist, long after the original significance has passed? I know that "Hallelujah" is a stirring piece, but is it as worthy of a standing ovation as others, or even, as the tradition seems to indicate, more worthy?
I have never been one to do things "just because we've always done it that way," a trait that has sometimes gotten me in trouble. I think I would not have such a problem with this tradition if the author himself had suggested it, as the best way to hear his music, but in the 21st century, it seems to me that doing it "just because" doesn't make sense anymore. On one hand, it's just a quaint tradition, one of many that we observe. On the other hand, it's a way to tell who's in and who's out--those who know of the standing tradition seemed much more at ease than those of us on the outside. I found it quite uncomfortable to stand for the entire piece--I chose to be in the audience, after all, not in the choir. And, it made me self-conscious--not the best mindset to be in whilst listening to music.
I have read that some conductors find the practice annoying, and put a note in the program to tell people not to stand. Stand or no, it would be helpful if those performing this work would indicate which is preferred, so that audience doesn't spend the first 20 to 30 seconds shuffling to their feet while looking around, sheepishly wondering if they are in the in crowd or not.