Nothing announces the holiday season quite as gloriously as the “Hallelujah” chorus from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.
Orchestras and choirs all over the nation will be performing the famous oratorio as Christmas approaches. But when Handel wrote the work in 1741, he had a different holiday altogether in mind.
“It was actually intended for Easter week,” explains conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, who will lead the Nashville Symphony and Chorus in performances of Messiah this weekend.
The first performance of the oratorio took place in Dublin in April of 1742, with the London premiere happening the following year in March. In Europe, Guerrero says, Messiah is still likely to be performed during the Lenten season.
Performing the oratorio in December is a tradition that began in the United States over 200 years ago.
In the spring of 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society formed in Boston. The ensemble began by performing mostly church hymns, but as membership grew and singing improved, a public performance was planned for Christmas day that year.
The program for the society’s debut concert was made up of selections from oratorios that would showcase their musicianship, including the “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah.
On Christmas day in 1818, the society gave the American premiere of Handel’s Messiah in full, and a new holiday musical tradition was born.
Scheduling the oratorio in December isn’t the only unique aspect of American Messiah performances, Guerrero says.
“In America, people stand up during the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus,” he says, adding that how the tradition began is unclear. “I’ve heard so many stories that go back to England, that the King stood up… but in reality, we really don’t know."
As the legend goes, King George II suddenly stood up during the chorus of Messiah’s London premiere in 1743. Some sources say he was so moved by the music that he found himself on his feet. Other theories aren’t as flattering: the King might have just needed a stretch due to a case of gout. Either way, when the King stood, it was considered proper etiquette for the rest of the audience to stand, too.
Regardless of origin, the tradition of standing continues, at least in America.
“Even though [the Messiah] originated in England, you go to Europe and they don’t do it,” Guerrero says. “It’s a very American thing. I’ve attended many Messiahs in Europe and it just doesn’t happen there. People just sit through the whole performance.”
In America, however, the tradition spans from coast to coast. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Nashville or Boston or Minneapolis or Houston or Eugene, Oregon,” says Guerrero. “People will stand.”