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First run at "Hallelujah" from "Messiah"

Friends,
 
I'm still a relative novice as a director and welcome your collective wisdom. My church choir sang "And the Glory" for Advent and Christmas. It was the most challenging piece I've put in front of them, and we had such success that I suggested we take up "Hallelujah" next. I've sung it before, and so have some in the choir, but this is the first time I've taught and directed it. So I'm asking you all what I should've asked you about "And the Glory" (given that "Hallelujah" is easier):
 
-- What have you found to be the most effective ways to teach this to an average church choir (20-25 members; some read music; most don't)?
-- What are you especially keen to get across in teaching/directing it?
-- How do you approach teaching a passage such as bars 22-32? Lots of parts separate? Lots of slow practice?
-- In those same bars, how do you treat "-jah, Hal-" when those two syllables appear below a single eighth note? Elide them? Turn the eighth into two 16ths?
-- What should I ask but don't have the sense to?
 
Tips? Tricks? Anything? I'm open. Let me learn from you!
 
And while we're at it, is Leonard Van Camp's A Practical Guide for Performing, Teaching and Singing Messiah worthwhile? Is there something you like better?
 
Paul Buckley
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on February 12, 2014 9:43am
Hi Paul
 
I have an excellent resource for Handel's Messiah. Part-predominant MP3s of "Hallelujah" can be found at this link on my web site: http://www.singharmony.com/search.php?ID=134. They are made by professional singers and a recording of the Bratislava City Choir.
 
A box set of CDs of all the choruses (except for "O Thou that Tellest..." which is available only as an MP3 download) can be found at this link: http://www.singharmony.com/cd/messiah.php. If you purchase a box set, you are eligible to make as many copies of the CDs as you want for $6.50/copy enabling each choir member to have his or her own CD of the choruses. This allows you to require singers to "learn their notes" prior to rehearsal so that you can start work on phrasing and dynamics right from the first rehearsal.
 
I hope you find this useful. Many other choir directors have been very pleased with my product.
 
Sincerely
 
Jim Taylor, President
SingHarmony.com Inc.
www.singharmony.com
 
 
on February 12, 2014 10:20am
2 suggestions: (1) Practice the "soprano trap" at the end regularly to get everyone used to breathing together at the pause (otherwise, with amateurs, some poor soul will under the tensions of the performance, inevitably step into the silence alone with "Ha-oopsie", and (2) DON'T slow down for the cadence. Just sing the ending in the same tempo. Handel already built in the augmentation; a slowdown is Romantic not Baroque. Also, don't beat time in the silence (just click the continuing tempo in your mind), and give a completely relaxed gentle-pull-upward preparatory beat on 3 before that last "Ha-", no click, no tension, just a breathing preparatory beat that does not look like "sing!" but like "breathe."
 
For the rest, decide how you want everything phrased and show them by singing it.
And help the sopranos open up their climactic solo high G's by modifying the vowel and dropping the jaw a little, so they don't screech; let the choir know this is the turning point of the piece.
 
Sing like it is brand new music.
 
Enjoy,
 
David Avshalomov
Applauded by an audience of 2
on February 12, 2014 12:13pm
Hey Paul,
I won't pretend to be an expert, but having directed this a few times myself in our church choir the first thing I open with is the word stress... HA-le-LU-jah... in my humble opinion, too many amateur choirs put too much stress at the end of the word... HA-le-lu-JAH and I try to get them to emphasize the 1st and 3rd syllables...more on the 3rd slightly less on the 1st.
 
I think the toughest thing about this piece is working on it with a choir of people most of whom have sung it before... whether or not they're receptive to your ideas, they already "Know It" and a lot of what I ended up doing was 'undoing' previous perceptions of the piece.  Another helpful thing was just speaking the polyphonic sections and pointing out how parts work off each other like when the Basses and Sop's are contrapuntally singing short Hallelujah's while Altos and Tenors sing "For the Lord..." all the while, emphasizing HA-le-LU-jah.
 
My 2 cents' worth...
 
-Mike
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 13, 2014 8:02am
The Van Camp book is a great resource. Many of my singers really appreciate having learning CDs (and there are a few out there, plus online resources), and in your situation, it certainly couldn't hurt. If you've done "And the Glory," "Hallelujah" won't be such a stretch.
on February 14, 2014 6:53am
Hi Paul,
 
I vote for the Van Camp.  It is excellent and a great guide to stylistic interpretation.  Good luck to your endeavor!  You have a wonderful opportunity to use a fresh approach, and not have to change old interpretive habits!
 
Denise Mathias
on February 15, 2014 6:53am
With the greatest respect...
 
I would disagree with adopting a uniform word-stress answer. One of the things that makes this piece so exciting to sing (imho) is the way in which the word-stresses shift about. Playing with word stress is not unique to our century; as rap artists know very well, there is something extremely compelling about hearing two conflicting rhythm and text stress patterns superimposed. By the time the choir sing their first four bars, Handel has put the stress on every possible syllable of the word, using both duration and position in the bar (very important in Baroque style and phrasing generally)
HAL - le- lu - jah, HAL - le- lu - jah,  Hal - le LU-jah, Hall - le - LU - ja, Ha - LE - - lu JAH. 
This trick is actually not at all uncommon for works of the time, is great fun to try, and has a sound historical basis, (even if you want to tone it down a bit later on!).
 
For me, drawing attention to the changing word stress also sets up a few crucial ideas that will help the singers find their way around for the rest of the piece. Bars 22 & 23 etc are rhythmically complicated apart from anything else. "Feeling" the barline as an ensemble is a useful landmark when the Altos are trying to count "7-and-a-half-beats" rest, and  is supported by ideas current in instrumental performance practice of the era. The first bars are also a great opportunity to look at the excitement provided by changing the rhythmic "size" of the phrases: compressing the phrase lengths and then stretching them outagain. This at least makes the complex sections later look less like an overwhelming sea of "difficult notes", and more like a strategically planned landscape.
 
In general I find a lot of Handel phrases are usefully viewed by thinking about how they're going to end. I literally teach some sections backwards: bar 50, then bars 49 and 50, and then look at the fugal entries part by part, but with the other parts more engaged in the rehearsal by being able to join in at the end of the phrase. This gets that overwhelming feeling of "culmination" towards a cadence which Handel writes so exceptionally well.
 
I don't know the Van Camp book, but on the strength of the recommendations below, I'll go try to find a copy!
 
Good luck - the piece is such great fun :-)
 
Marion Wood
 
on February 16, 2014 3:56am
I find myself always reminding my singers that we do not have to sing this entire chorus at "FFFF" as if they were a 300-voice ensemble.  I have to be specific about the places to sing quietly, that the word "cresecendo" implies "later (not NOW!)" and that a crescendo actually needs to start several dynamics less to have any effect.  The singers KNOW these things, but in the Hallelujah chorus, they seem to be forgotten.   :-)
 
The choir will love being introduced to one of the "monuments" of choral music.
 
SJS
on February 16, 2014 5:42am
Definitely elide.
 
And if they haven't already seen it, share this with them. Not only very funny but teaches the structure.
 
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