Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah,” and, in particular, its “Hallelujah Chorus,” figures largely in our family’s lore. Over the years, I’ve participated in several Handel Choirs, mostly as an alto. A vocal score of Messiah’s choruses has somehow made it through our various moves and sits, slightly musty, on a shelf in my office. Once covid concerns wane sufficiently, I hope to participate in future Messiah singalongs.
I’m not sure when I first heard this uplifting music. Because both my mother and her mother were practicing musicians, it was probably early in my life. The first time I remember being fully aware of the majesty of the piece was the Christmas season I was ten years old.
Our immediate family’s trajectory had been fairly typical of post-World War II small town America. My father came home from the Navy in early 1946, after serving the final years of that war on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He and my mom, who’d married during one of his home leaves in 1944, set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom cottage built by Mom’s parents next door to their own house. Mom’s parents wanted to keep their youngest close by, especially after their only other daughter and their one grandchild so far had moved cross-country to Seattle.
About a year later, I put in my appearance, followed in 1951 by a sister, then in 1953 by surprise twins—my youngest siblings, brothers to carry on the family name. Although Dad and some carpenter friends had added a second bedroom when my sister was born, it was tucked into an increasingly steep hillside. The slope precluded further expansion. Our small cottage was bursting at the seams. Dad and Mom paid a minimal monthly rent to my grandparents, more as a sop to Dad’s pride than anything approaching market rate.
Partly buoyed by this informal subsidy, by 1957 Dad and Mom had scrimped and saved enough to purchase a five acre piece of property in a wealthier part of town. Dad by then had become a small-scale residential construction contractor. He had the contacts and skills to be able to build his and Mom’s dream house on the newly purchased land at minimal cost. They would start construction in March, 1958, once the ground thawed.
For our final Christmas at the cottage, we’d shoehorned into one corner of the living room a small fir tree with presents underneath. While we went next door for breakfast at Granny and Pop-Pop’s, Santa (so the younger children believed) would leave an even bigger pile of gifts to be opened after our return.
On prior Christmas mornings, we’d been awakened by Dad’s best stentorian bellow: “Rise and shine, morning’s a’wasting!” he’d yell.
This year was different. From somewhere near the stairwell leading from the living room to our basement-level kitchen, there was music. Every bit as loud as Dad, it had a decidedly different pitch and rhythm: “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!” As we stumbled out of our bunk beds and wiped the sleepy sand from our eyes, we wondered what was producing the music. It didn’t take us very long to locate the new walnut stereo cabinet with the record jacket to “The Messiah” placed carefully on top. Dad grinned at us, triumphant.
My father and my maternal grandmother had a respectful but sometimes strained relationship. Granny could be fussy about protocol and social niceties. Early in Dad’s and Mom’s married lives, before the arrival of children, Dad had gone out of his way one Christmas season to impress Granny. At considerable expense, he’d purchased three tickets to an evening performance of all three parts of Handel’s Messiah in downtown Baltimore. He’d arranged transportation to and from the concert hall and had put on his one good suit to escort the ladies to this holiday tradition.
As retold at subsequent holiday gatherings, Dad was so tired after a busy day of physical work that he nodded off early in part one. When the “Hallelujah Chorus” began (at the end of part two), Dad startled awake. Most in the audience were getting up, a tradition started supposedly when, at the premier London performance in 1743, King George II had stood for the “king of kings.” Other audience members had followed suit. Standing for the Hallelujah Chorus became customary whenever and wherever the oratorio was performed. Dad wrongly assumed it was the end of the performance. He went to get Granny’s and Mom’s coats, much to Granny’s chagrin.
Perhaps the 1957 hallelujahs were his way of celebrating the prospect of having a little more distance from his fussy mother-in-law. Perhaps he was just overjoyed at the prospect of a big-enough house.
After my dad’s multiple careers were over, he developed dementia. For much of his decline, he was lovingly tended by my mom, assisted by a fairly robust social safety net that included veterans’ benefits and a drop-in adult day care center. During his final few months, once the burden of his care threatened to debilitate my mother as well, he was confined to a nursing home. When my sister phoned to let me know that his body had finally died, she had the “Hallelujah Chorus” playing in the background. Somehow, it was a fitting testimony to Dad’s release from suffering.
The past couple of years have not been especially easy. Many of us have lost loved ones. The covid pandemic, in the U.S. and elsewhere, has brought into starker relief our disparities of wealth and of access to needed services. Rather than Handel, some of us may be more attuned to the darker lyrics of a recent “Hallelujah” version by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Cohen continued revising the lyrics almost up until his death in 2016. After several despondent verses, he nonetheless asserts:
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…
I like to think that both “Hallelujahs” are relevant. We have suffered. We will suffer again. We have known joy. We will know joy again. Hallelujah!