Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hallelujah! (Re-posting of my very first)

Sometime I would like to have Cantor Roslyn Barak of Temple Emman-u-el in San Francisco demonstrate to some choir director friends of mine the proper Hebrew pronunciation of the word ‘Hallelujah.’ It is my observed contention that American and English choral directors have a misplaced fetish about the word.

I think that most people I know, are familiar with the stand-up Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ (One story is that the reason people stand up during the singing of this chorus, is that King George II needed to go to the loo, and when he stood up, so did the entire audience. Now it’s a tradition.) Anyway, most musically untrained people will sing “Hah-le-loo-YAH” just as Handel set it. But trained Anglo-American musicians— particularly in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition— insist that the only proper pronunciation is to emphasize the ‘LOO’ and very carefully (against the grain) de-emphasize the final syllable ‘YAH.’ Furthermore –except when historically set, as in the Handel— the ‘H’ shouldn’t be pronounced at all, since it never is in Latin. To do otherwise is considered crude and unpolished.

That’s well and good for Latin. The problem is, it’s not a Latin word. Instead, it’s a Hebrew phrase. Literally it means: ‘Praise be to God.” The ‘ia’ or ‘YAH’ is not a throwaway syllable; it’s the object of the entire poetic phrase. I think the opening musical phrase to Cesar Frank’s setting of Psalm 150 gives just the right emphasis to the English words “Praise, Ye the Lord” and would work just as well if you substituted “Hal-le-lu-YAH.” So I contend—especially for new settings in English—that the ‘H’ should be pronounced, the ‘lu’ should not get a false emphasis, and there should be proper weight given to ‘YAH,’ which means God. (Admittedly, some American composers have been under the influence of our misplaced tradition, and have composed pieces, which work well only as they had intended. An example is Randall Thompson’s ‘Alleluia.’ So be it.) But going forward in English, we should be aware of the meaning of the Hebrew phrase, and not be falsely influenced by the Latin word.

But even European settings in Latin are performed differently by Italian, German and French choirs from the performance practice of American and English choirs. I think one could actually do a rigorous comparison of performance styles and practices, and demonstrate quantitatively, by measuring decibel differences in syllable emphases for the word ‘Hallelujah’ in the same piece of music as performed by the different traditions. There have been stranger dissertation topics!


The above is a reposting of my very first blog post back on September 4, 2008.

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