Classical Music’s Seventh-Inning Stretch

I’ve been to hundreds of classical music concerts, including a few in Europe. You would think nothing that happens in a concert hall could surprise me.

That’s certainly what I thought. Of course I was wrong.

Last night The Fabulous Wife and I attended the San Francisco Symphony’s annual performance of Georg Friedrich Handel’s Messiah, the renowned oratorio often played at Christmastime. Born in Germany in 1685, Handel was writing operas by age 20. In 1710 he became conductor of the orchestra maintained by the Elector of Hanover, who four years later was crowned King George I of England. Handel followed his boss, composed operas that proved immediately successful in London, and made the British Isles his permanent home. He composed the two-hour Messiah in late summer 1741, needing just 24 days from start to finish, and premiered it in Dublin for Easter of 1742, to great acclaim. He premiered the work in London a year later.

Handel in 1749, painted by Thomas Hudson.

The Messiah is divided into three parts: Christ’s birth, life, and resurrection. The climax of the second section is perhaps the most famous four minutes in all of baroque music, the Hallelujah Chorus. The link I’m using is to a performance similar in scale to the one we saw, which featured about 30 musicians and 80 singers. (Apologies for the murky sound, but I couldn’t pass up Kent Nagano’s version, because years ago he led the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.) Some performances use hundreds of musicians and singers, the most infamous being this rescored version under Sir Thomas Beecham’s bombastic baton.

I’m not a fan of baroque music. I know more about modern American composers like John Adams and Mason Bates than I do about Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. I had never seen the Messiah live, nor had I ever listened to the whole piece through. Even so, I knew when the Hallelujah Chorus was coming, and braced myself — mentally and even a bit physically — for the burst of sound.

And then everyone in the audience stood up.

Frozen in my chair from surprise, I did what any red-blooded American man would do: I turned to see what The Fabulous Wife was doing and took my cue from her.

She had leapt to her feet as well. So I stood up.

When the Chorus ended and the crowd applauded madly, I leaned over to her and whispered, “Why are we all standing up?”

“Because the king did,” was all she could say before the music resumed.

I looked it up afterwards. By the time Handel premiered Messiah in London, George I had given way to George II. The story is that George II came to daddy’s favorite composer’s concert, stood when he heard the Hallelujah Chorus, and the audience followed suit because when the king stands, so must his subjects. From there standing for the Hallelujah Chorus became tradition, just as standing before the bottom of the seventh inning became tradition in baseball after President Taft reportedly did it during the Washington Senators’ first home game of 1910.

Just one problem: there’s no proof George II was even at that concert. There are no contemporary accounts of his presence. The best historians have come up with by way of verification is a letter written 37 years later by someone relying on a hearsay account of George II’s attendance and behavior.

All of which makes me even more grateful classical music is irrelevant to popular culture. Can you imagine what the pundits would do with this?

On the right: “Didn’t we fight a revolution to escape this kind of tradition? That said, it’s a Christian country and this is Christmastime, so stand up, you heathens!”

On the left: “Didn’t we fight a revolution to escape this kind of tradition? That said, a show of religious allegiance in a secular setting violates the separation of church and state, so sit down, you fanatics!”

Even without popular attention, the tradition of standing is controversial. If you go back to the video of Kent Nagano’s Hallelujah Chorus and review the audience cameos, you’ll see that many people are standing, but many aren’t. (And now you know the real reason I chose that version!)

As for me, now that I know standing for the Hallelujah Chorus is a thing, I’m not sure what I’ll do next time.

Who am I kidding? Of course I know what I’ll do. I’ll look to The Fabulous Wife.

(For more on the strange history around the Hallelujah Chorus, check out this article in the Boston Globe.)