Don’t retire the Hallelujah Chorus

I recently read a well-argued and reasoned editorial advising that choirs retire from their Winter Concerts the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The author made excellent points, but I disagree with his conclusion. I’d like to address some of the assertions and add my own thoughts.

Familiarity is not a bad thing: the fact that choirs across the country sing this piece is an asset, not a liability. December concerts, when everyone wants to hear choral music, is a great time to nod to familiarity. Programming this piece is guaranteed to stir the hearts of your audience and your students.

Furthermore, it’s great music. Exposing our students to the great choral masterworks ought to be a part of our mission as teachers, and the Hallelujah is a perfect opportunity to expose the students to a Baroque masterpiece. You program Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 for your orchestra for the same reason – it’s familiar because it’s great, and you program it because it’s great, not because it’s familiar.

Of the ten reasons he gives, six address different possibilities for why it won’t sound good. (In brief: underprepared students, vocally un-warm alumni, underprepared alumni, rushing accompaniment (keyboard), rushing accompaniment (orchestra/band), it’s difficult, and the pianist might make mistakes.)

But it can sound great! I have heard–and participated in–my share of excellent performances of Hallelujah. Alumni may be less warmed up than your choir, yes, but they should also be far outnumbered by your choir. And they won’t be more warmed up if you program a setting of Silent Night instead.

Lack of preparation is a liability in every piece you program, and is not inherently tied to this piece. If your students are repeatedly underprepared, you should look to rehearsal planning, not a specific piece. Collaborators pose their own challenges, but not ones that are insurmountable. There are inherent difficulties to this piece, of course, but I maintain there are inherent difficulties in every piece. You could program a unison rendition of Jingle Bells and find that it poses unique challenges without proper preparation.

Is Hallelujah difficult to perform well under specific circumstances? Of course. But in my opinion, the educational opportunities, programming benefits, and net positives of doing Hallelujah with intent and proper preparation outweigh any liabilities.