Why do We Stand for Handel's Messiah?
Preparing for the Fifth Sunday of Easter: Two Days Before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 148
Old Testament: Daniel 7:13-14
Epistle: Revelation 11:15
Open our hearts to your power moving around us and between us and within us, until your glory is revealed in our love of both friend and enemy, in communities transformed by justice and compassion, and in the healing of all that is broken. Amen.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands (or maybe millions) of people attending a performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah this holiday season, you may find yourself rising to your feet at the opening sounds of the famed “Hallelujah” chorus. That kind of audience behavior is an outlier in the concert hall — imagine the listeners rising to their feet at the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
So, how did this become tradition? Well, here’s the thing — we honestly don’t know. The most accepted reason is that King George II stood up during the chorus at the Messiah’s 1743 London premiere. Unfortunately, Snopes wasn’t around back then to fact-check any of the reasons given for that ascendant, magisterial behavior. Some believe the king was so moved by the music that he stood up to show his reverence. And, since it was considered good etiquette to stand when the king stood, the audience had to follow suit.
But if this were the case, why didn’t the king stand during any of the other glorious choral passages in the oratorio? Like…
A few medical-related theories have also circulated for some time. Author Philip Howard mentions one of these in his book, The British Library: A Treasure House of Knowledge. "The King rose to his feet," Howard began, "possibly because of a bad case of pins and needles or gout, rather than an outburst of royal emotion inspired by the music."
But Julian Wachner, the music director of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, believes in a much more practical answer: The Messiah is really long, and after two hours of music the king just really wanted to stretch his legs. Maybe it’s not romantic, but it does make sense. One other thing about this standing business — the first written mention of King George standing during the Messiah doesn’t occur until several decades after the premiere, raising the question of whether or not it happened at all.
The reason for standing during the famous chorus is a mystery. But whatever it may be, it continues to be a staple of Christmas music traditions. Hallelujah.