Standing on tradition

Do audiences outside Britain stand for the "Hallelujah” chorus in Handel's Messiah? I assume not, as the tradition is said to originate from our King George II once standing for this number, possibly to alleviate his gout. The Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony are very models of modern performing ensembles. At last night's Norwich Messiah there was not a tuxedo in sight. But still conductor Stephen Layton gestured expansively for the audience to stand for the words 'Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth'. Isn't classical music strange?

Stephen Layton's used his own edition of the Messiah for the performance. So he missed an opportunity to end the royalist tradition with a pithy annotation in the score. It was a cracking performance from the Britten Sinfonia, Polyphony and four outstanding young soloists. Hearing the Messiah played by a top-of-their-game chamber orchestra on modern instruments in the acoustics of a concert hall underlined just how great Handel's string writing is. For further evidence look no further than the composer's somewhat neglected Concerti Grossi, op. 3. I'll give period instruments the nod on this one and recommend Tafelmusik's recording directed by Jeanne Lamon.

There was certainly nothing traditional about the sound we heard last night. The venue for this Messiah, Norwich's Theatre Royal, has just had the French CARMEN® digital sound enhancement system installed to enhance its dry acoustics. The results, judging by last night's concert and the recent Glyndebourne Hänsel und Gretel, are certainly very impressive. More on this subject in my 2006 article Digital technology builds a virtual concert hall.

Last night's forces are recording the Messiah for release in autumn 2009 as part of the celebrations to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer's death. The two CDs will be released on the Britten Sinfonia's new record label which is a joint venture with innovative independent Signum Classics. There have recently been outstanding new recordings of the Messiah from The Sixteen and Dunedin Consort. (I have to point out that the Dunedin recording on the Linn Records label, which dates from 2006, is also available on vinyl LP). On last night's showing the Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony version should be up there with the best.

Stephen Layton is not usually one to stand on tradition.
The Britten Sinfonia/Polyphony Messiah can also be heard in Ely Cathedral on Dec 18, and St John's, Smith Square on Dec 21, 22 and 23. My ticket for last night's performance was provided free by the Britten Sinfonia as sole payment for chairing the pre-concert talk with three of the soloists. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
Email received:

Do people outside the U.K. stand for the Hallelujah Chorus? They certainly do in Canada (gee, I wonder why.....), unless they are told not to.

They even stand if it's played as an excerpt in a School Christmas concert (except, in Public schools--not like your Public schools--they're not allowed to say Christmas in order to be P.C.) or by a brass band, etc.

Lot's of people wearing tight knickers? Doubt it.

David Cavlovic
Pliable said…
...and another.

Oh yes, we "colonists" stand in America for the "Hallelujah!" chorus. I grew up in a large Presbyterian church in the midwest that had the congregation rise and face the Resurrection stained glass window at the rear of the sanctuary (it was an impressive sight).

The King George stories are various, I guess. I heard the one that he fell asleep and that the resounding opening chords of the chorus startled him awake, causing him to jump to his feet.

Now I wonder which British monarch instituted American baseball's 7th inning 'stretch'?

Carol Murchie
Justin Friello said…
Oh yes, at every performance of the Messiah that I've been to here in the US, the audience stands. In fact, the instructions to do so have even appeared in programs.
Matthew said…
An interesting variation from the former colonies: in the program for Boston Baroque's annual Messiah, they have a little box explaining the tradition, the pros and cons, concluding by basically saying if you want to stand, go ahead, if you don't, you're historically covered. The (possibly predictably American) result is, of course, haphazard disorganization.
Anonymous said…
" Do audiences outside Britain stand for the "Hallelujah” chorus in Handel's Messiah? "

In Canada, yes. A few days ago in Toronto, David Willcocks conducted what was reportedly a superb Messiah, and turned to motion the audience to stand before he began the Hallelujah chorus.
Pliable said…
Scott, thanks for that. And it is wonderful to hear that Sir David Willcocks is still making great music in his 78th year.
John Bickley said…
I saw David Willcocks conduct the choir at Queens´College in Cambridge just a couple of weeks ago: it was at evensong to mark Richard Hickox's death just a couple of days after he died. He certainly can still inspire chamber-scale choirs as well.
Unknown said…
In Australia they do too. I sang Messiah seven times in the last four weeks, and in all concets, in Melbourne and in country Victoria, the audience stood. It was triggerred by the conductor and members of the audience.
' said…
As Pliable at al. note, and although Texas isn't a former colony, we do in here too. The only other time we stand during the music is for the national anthem, and some cognitive psychologist might find in that an explanation as to why so many felt that "singing along" automatically goes with "standing up," as we experienced last week when our 17-year-old sang in the choir with the local symphony in Austin.
When the New York Philarmonic played Messiah last week under the direction of Ton Koopman, there was a program note similar to the Boston Baroque one noted above, discussing the origins of the standing tradition and inviting audience members to do as they wished. On the night I attended, nearly everyone stood - some shot up right away, while others followed a half-minute or so later, some with bemused or sheepish looks on their faces that suggested that they weren't really sure what was going on and felt they should follow the crowd.
Yvonne said…
Another one for Australia: you see plenty of standing – although not everyone feels the urge to stand and those who want to remain seated don't seem bothered about doing that.

However, I can't recall ever seeing a conductor encourage the audience to stand, nor have I ever seen a program book that instructs people to stand. Occasionally it will be referred to in a historical note, but without an invitation or instruction either way.
Lots of standing at the Messiah's I've attended although it is often a claque of super-eager standers that lead the way followed reluctantly by the rest of us.

I rather enjoy the standing as a sort of seventh inning stretch activity that restores my consciousness to 100% and gives me hope that the end is near.

The super-eager claque are also all inevitably former choristers who feel the need to reinforce the contracted vocal forces with their own contribution.

I like Messiah but it is the "all the world's a stage" aspect of these sorts of things that I find more intriguing.
Pliable said…
OM, I'll certainly second your final comment.

The question about standing was almost a throwaway line from me.

Who would have thought it would generate one of the biggest ever responses to any of my posts?

As I said in the post - 'Isn't classical music strange?'
Kyle L said…
One more response here: Yes, we stand up for the Hallelujah chorus in Florida. The thing that intrigues me most is the prevalence of the chorus. When we sang the first part last Christmas, our director tacked on the chorus at the end. And when we did parts 2 & 3 for Easter, we sang it twice! At its usual spot, and again tacked on at the end of Part 3. But the congregation only stood on that second time. It's a curious habit, but I bet we're not the only choir to perform it this way.

Recent popular posts

All aboard the Martinu bandwagon

Will this attract young audiences? - discuss

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?

Who are the real classical role models?

Mahler that dares to be different

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Great music has no independent existence

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

Closer to Vaughan Williams than Phil Spector

Nada Brahma - Sound is God