My Festive Favourite: 'Hallelujah Chorus'

Composer Neil Martin recalls singing Handel's masterpiece in the Ulster Hall in 1972

The first time I performed on the stage of the Ulster Hall was, alarmingly, almost 40 years ago. It was the Christmas of 1972, and I was a fledgling pupil at the City of Belfast School of Music. Along with countless dozens of others I was to sing soprano in the chorus in the Christmas concert. There were the standard carols to be sung, but it was the 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Handel’s Messiah that really interested and moved me.

Of course as a ten year-old boy I couldn’t fully explain those feelings to myself or anyone else, but I did feel there was something very special going on. I was enjoying this thing, whatever it was, being on that stage, performing music that was beyond explanation, but music that made your heart swell.

I can remember with a crystal clarity to this very day Elspeth Ellis playing the piano accompaniment, and Leonard Pugh conducting these scores and scores of singers, a sea of eager faces. And I can remember seeing endless rows of people in the hall. This was a big do. I knew my mother was there in the audience too, and that comforted me. I remember enjoying the applause, thinking that some of it must have been for me.

When it was all over and the excitement had died down, my memory of that night was one of satisfaction – simple, innocent pleasure at having achieved something. We had gone onto that stage and we had loved performing an extraordinary piece of music and people clapped because they loved it too. That sense of the pleasure of performance has not left me since.

40-odd years on, I remember that concert so keenly that I know it must have been very significant to me – I don’t remember too many others from those days, but something hooked me that evening. Without being able to voice it back then, I intuitively knew there was a serious power to Handel's 'Hallelujah Chorus', that it had somehow within it the ability to make you feel good.

I can slightly better describe at this age how that piece of music humbles and transports me, how I am in awe of it, of how it satisfies on so many levels. And yet it offers a vision of something that I am still at a loss to properly explain in words. Perhaps that is why we have and need good music – it starts where words no longer satisfy. It was about two years later that I began to write my own first little simple pieces.

My professional life has been one of performing and composing music, and I have written large scale orchestral and choral works. Lest one would ever get notions above one's station, a great leveller is to remind myself that Handel wrote the entire Messiah oratorio, of which the 'Hallelujah Chorus' is only a part, in 24 days. That is simply beyond my comprehension. The scale and dimension of the work, and the musical, spiritual and human content, are all gargantuan.

Being a composer I understand something of the process, but to have executed this all in such a short period of time is mind-boggling. And that the work had its world premiere in Dublin in April 1742 adds a bonus sense of pride, too.

I recently watched a performance of the 'Hallelujah Chorus' online (see below), a performance from Macy’s store in Philadelphia where singers from the Opera Company of Philadelphia and 650 local choristers were planted throughout the great hall of the store and they performed the chorus, with superb organ accompaniment. They called this a 'random act of culture' - the performance is so very stirring.

268 years on from its Dublin premiere, the 'Hallelujah Chorus' still has every bit of that inexplicable power. How fortunate was I in life to have been introduced to it at such an early age. I am forever indebted.

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