Hallelujah—Leonard Cohen

Last week we said goodbye to Leonard Cohen (7 November 2016), the Canadian poet turned singer. He sang dark but uplifting songs to the children of the 60s and is as important as Bob Dylan. His music is a fundamental part of the zeitgeist. We mourn him for he was part of the glue of our generation. Although it is sad to see him go his obituaries say he was ready for his end and he died at 82.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

The older of us will remember more of his songs but undoubtedly the song that became his signature was Hallelujah. If you look on YouTube nearly everyone has covered it. Cohen found its composition difficult, writing it in his underwear on the floor of his hotel room banging his head against the floor and filling pages and pages with verses.

Cohen recorded Hallelujah in 1984 but it didn’t have much success (Cohen found it ironic that his record company didn’t think it was good enough to release). John Cale (who had founded Velvet Underground with Lou Reed) did a cover version of Hallelujah on a tribute album in 1991 that gave the song a new lease of life.

This Cale version further inspired Jeff Buckley (the son of Tim Buckley) to cover Hallelujah in 1992. It is Buckley’s version that sent Hallelujah’s  popularity into orbit from where it has never returned. To many Jeff Buckley “owned” it, and without doubt his interpretation is quite beautiful. (Sadly, Jeff Buckley drowned in 1997 and most of his success came posthumously).

In 2008 Hallelujah was first and second on the British music charts (number one for X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke, number two for Jeff Buckley) and Cohen’s original also made it into the Top 40 chart. However even Cohen thought it might be getting overplayed.

What makes Hallelujah such an important song? It is both secular and spiritual, about loss and redemption, it is a song that you can sing at a wedding or a funeral.

Frederic Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus

But before Cohen’s song Hallelujah had a very different musical life. Until Cohen used Hallelujah its most famous outing was in the great Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah (the text of which comes from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Revelation 19:6: “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” Revelation 19:16: “And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.” Revelation 11:15 reads, “And he shall reign for ever and ever.”)

Handel composed Messiah (in 1741) in much the same way that Cohen had composed his song. Handel composed Messiah in 24 days often refusing sleep and food until it was completed. Handel is believed to have said that while composing the Hallelujah Chorus he “saw heaven opened and the great God himself”.  Messiah was composed as a fund-raiser for a Dublin charity to help men out of debtors prisons and was first performed in Dublin in 1742. It was a success in Dublin but not in London the following season. However soon afterwards, when Handel was invited to provide music for a fund-raising concert for the London Foundling Hospital, Messiah was recognised by English audiences as the great piece of music it is.

Standing for Hallelujah

It is a tradition to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus, which causes much consternation to atheists and republicans. Messiah is an English Oratorio, a form of music like an opera recital (i.e. without the costumes, acting and scenery). It was a form perfected by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) that Handel adopted when he moved to London from Germany.

Although oratorios are secular music they were often based on Old Testament stories. Thus Messiah confused many critics because it was a secular piece of music performed in theatres but because it was based on the life of Christ it therefore had a religious meaning. During an early performance it is believed (although not proved) that George II stood up during the Hallelujah Chorus and therefore his subjects were obliged to follow. So standing during the chorus is akin to standing during the hymn singing in church.

The story goes that George was acknowledging that his kingship was based on divine grace. However an American conductor, Robert Shaw, one of those that hate the tradition insisted it was George’s bladder not his soul that caused him to stand.

The meaning of hallelujah

So what is the meaning of hallelujah? As a biblical word there are no surprises that it is from Hebrew, Greek and Latin. It comes to English from alleluia (12c.) from Old French alleluie. Late Latin hallelujah, alleluia, from Greek allelouia, from Hebrew hallalu-yah meaning praise ye Jehovah. The first part, Hallalu, comes from hallel meaning to praise which came from the sense of to trill, presumably from the way of worship. The second element is yah, shortened form of Yahweh, (in English Jehovah) a rendering of the Tetragrammaton, YHVH, the sacred name of God, which in Jewish tradition was not to be uttered.

Farewell Leonard Cohen

Cohen was buried with traditional Jewish rites on 10 November 2016 in the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery, Montreal beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. His music will live on.