Survey of Musical Directors’ views on audiences standing during the Hallelujah Chorus

Music Librarian, Festival Singers of Wellington

On 14 December 1997 I posted the following to the Choralist internet discussion list:

“I have just posted, on our web-site, extracts from a couple of (very favourable) reviews of our Messiah on Saturday – but there is an issue, raised by both critics, that I have omitted from the posting on which I would be very interested to hear you views – that of the audience standing during the Hallelujah chorus.
“It is a firmly entrenched tradition for some New Zealand audiences to do this, while in a few cases it has been known for an instruction to remain seated to be printed in the programme.

“I would be interested to hear how common it is, around the world, for audiences to stand during this chorus – and what you all think of the practice. As usual, please reply direct to me, and I will post a compilation.”

In the seven days that followed, I received no less than 47 responses, 34 of which were from the USA, plus 6 from Canada, 2 from France, 1 from Singapore, and 4 whose country of origin I could not determine (but most probably USA). In addition, two respondents also referred to their experience of the practice in Hungary and South Africa. The distribution of the sources of the replies is probably reasonably representative of the List membership. What really astounded me was that the 34 American responses either originated in, or referred to the practice in, no less than 26 different States, viz: AL, AR, AZ, CA, DC, FL, GA, IA, IL, KS, LA, MD, MI, MN, MO, NH, NC, NJ, NM, NY, OH, PA, RI, TX, UT and VA, plus a general reference to the Midwest.

The appendix includes the full text of the relevant parts of all the replies, which are summarised as follows:

From this admittedly small sample I feel justified in reporting that the practice of standing is widespread in the English-speaking world, including the USA, but not elsewhere. The one part of the US in which, according to one reply, the practice of standing is less common in the concert hall (as opposed to church) was New York City.

One thing that prompted me to pose the question to Choralist subscribers had been the comment of one of our local newspaper reviewers that “here we remained with the spurious tradition of standing [during the Halleluia Chorus], which seems increasingly absurd as we approach the republic.” This latter remark refers to a suggestion that New Zealanders wish to follow our neighbours across the Tasman along their desired track towards republican status. From the replies I received from the USA, it would appear that living in a republic does not preclude one from standing during this movement of the Messiah!

Opinions on the practice were varied, with 8 respondents objecting to it, 16 feeling positive about it, and the remainder either being neutral or expressing no view. Those who objected to the audience standing generally referred to the practice as stupid, unnecessary, or disruptive.

One respondent referred specifically to the disruption caused by applause after the chorus, but I would make my own comment here that the movement does come at the very end of Part 2 where both applause and a break would be quite common anyway. Having said that, I must also observe that our own performance only included one interval and that it did not come at the end of Part 2!

I was surprised by the reply that linked remaining seated with authenticity. My understanding of the customs of concert-goers in the 18th Century is that they were, by our standards, a somewhat rowdy lot. Interrupting, standing, coming and going, applauding, hissing, boo-ing during a performance would have been the norm – much of which is, I believe, retained by the opera-going public in Italy today.

Most supporters of standing, and many of the “neutrals” seemed to acknowledge the audience’s wish to be part of a tradition. An aspect not mentioned, but which to me (an ardent stander) is important is the place held by this work in the minds of our audiences. Above all others, it must stand as the major work known and enjoyed by such a wide range of people; for many it is their introduction to choral concerts and I would maintain that it is for us to make that introduction as exciting as possible. I do not advocate instructing audiences to stand. One respondent said, “I like the sense of involvement it gives, between performers and audience.” Another referred to the change in “energy” when the audience stands, and I’m sure that his/her mention of the choir becoming “enervated” was intended to be “enlivened” or “energised”. As a singer, I can certainly assure any conductor concerned about possible “disruption” that, when I see the audience stand, my own performance is immediately lifted.

From the very start, replies included comments or questions about the origin of the practice, and so I re-posted my enquiry, copying it to Choraltalk and broadening the scope to include respondents’ thoughts on this aspect also.

Nearly all who mentioned the origin of the tradition were happy with the idea that it began with King George II who stood during the chorus at an early London performance. Some were explicit about it being the first London performance at Covent Garden, one quoting the entry in the Oxford Companion to Music (10th Ed). Others raised questions as to the reality of the King having stood at all – indeed, one referred to Burrows’s book “Handel : Messiah” (Cambridge Music Handbooks) in which the King’s presence at the performance is even questioned – there is no official record of his presence, but he could have been there in a private capacity. One reply referred to a letter, dated 1780, from one James Beattie as being the first written account of the King standing. Beattie appears not to have claimed his own presence at the performance – and so we are probably still dealing with hearsay.

No-one mentioned the Westminster Abbey performance at which Haydn is supposed to have been present. According to the Oxford Companion (5th Ed, this time – but later ones also, I expect) Haydn is claimed to have “stood with the crowd, wept and exclaimed “He is the master of us all.”” No date is given for this occurrence, but if it did take place, it would appear that the tradition was well established, at least in London, by the turn of the 19th Century.

Whatever truth there is in the origin of the tradition resting with King George II, there is no shortage of speculation on what might have prompted him to stand. The King’s late arrival, stretching his legs, relieving his gout, the need for the bathroom, being woken by the chorus’s forte opening, the King’s own sense of reverence – all these, and others, figured in the responses. As one respondent put it: “. . . speculating is fun.”

My sincere thanks to all that replied to my postings, and also to those who maintain Choralist and Choraltalk, making this survey possible. The replies are all included in the Appendix below.

Appendix

Replies, as received, more or less in order of receipt, from Choralist and Choraltalk contributors. My thanks to them all

My choir has just recently performed this piece, and we had the audience stand for it. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the king standing, and I honestly don’t know if that is true. I believe it is out of respect, and that an audience should stand for this piece.

The tradition of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus–of dubious origin, as you know–is preserved in the States. Performances aiming for a higher degree of authenticity usually include the request for the audience to remain seated, since the tradition has nothing to do with the music. We always worry that people will leave thinking the piece is over!

It’s quite common in the UNited States for audiences to stand during the Hallelujah chorus, though I think the trend is fading. Occasionally, I hear audiences interrupt the performance (i.e., the movement to the next part) with applause at this point. It’s the religious connection, I think. I dislike both habits.

I am writing from New Hampshire, USA. It is very common here – I suspect they always stand, but I think it’s a stupid tradition.

I was in Budapest two summers ago, and heard a Canadian Chorus do it – no one stood, neither the Hungarians, any of the tourists who must have been there, or the Canadian non-singers.

My experience is that audiences generally stand. This is mostly in churches in the U.S. (Kansas and California, mostly). The only explanation I ever get when I ask why is that oonce upon a time a king stood up during a performance (as to why he stood up, the answer ranges from going to the bathroom to admiration for the piece).

IT’S DUMB, BUT I DOUBT THAT I’VE EVER ATTENDED A PERFORMANCE WHERE PEOPLE DIDN’T STAND FOR HALLELUJAH.

Common practise in Canada and South Africa is to stand.

The jacket of an old recording of the Messiah that I have said that while listening to the premiere performance of the oratorio, the king stood up at the beginning of the Hallelujah Chorus because he was tired of sitting. And when the king stood, everyone stood!

At every performance I have performed or attended over the years here in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, the audience seems to be aware of the tradition and has always stood. Even at my parish church when we use it during a liturgy.

Well, up here in Canada it’s definitely a tradition, and the several hundred Messiahs being done around the country would be hard put to break that by putting a note in the program. Personally, I think it’s not a bad thing, everyone gets a good stretch, and it makes for a decent break before Part III. I will be conducting 3 performances this weekend, and know I will want a break at that point with the applause and all. We will go with the flow…

the practice of standing during the hallelujah chorus is firmly entrenched in the US. The reasons are only legendary– no one really knows how, why, when or where this tradition got its start. But if audiences are moved to stand, I say let them stand!

In every performance I’ve ever done (more than I care to count), whether the Hallelujah was a sing-along with the audience or not, the audience stood. All of my performances have been in the Midatlantic region of the USA (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York).

It’s never bothered me! People seem to enjoy the tradition.

Growing up in midwestern United States, it has always been pretty much a given that the audience will stand during Hallelujah chorus. I just attended a local performance this weekend and was reminded again of how much I feel that it is disruptive to the whole work, especially when the audience applauds afterward. That’s my opinion… what I am interested in is the reason behind the tradition… if you or anyone who responds to you has a speculation or has researched this, please let me know! Or include it in your compilation. Just one of those things that bothers me, I suppose, and I’ve always wanted to know why it came to be in the first place.

The jacket of an old recording of the Messiah that I have said that while listening to the premiere performance of the oratorio, the king stood up at the beginning of the Hallelujah Chorus because he was tired of sitting. And when the king stood, everyone stood!

At every performance I have performed or attended over the years here in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, the audience seems to be aware of the tradition and has always stood. Even at my parish church when we use it during a liturgy.

Well, up here in Canada it’s definitely a tradition, and the several hundred Messiahs being done around the country would be hard put to break that by putting a note in the program. Personally, I think it’s not a bad thing, everyone gets a good stretch, and it makes for a decent break before Part III. I will be conducting 3 performances this weekend, and know I will want a break at that point with the applause and all. We will go with the flow…

the practice of standing during the hallelujah chorus is firmly entrenched in the US. The reasons are only legendary– no one really knows how, why, when or where this tradition got its start. But if audiences are moved to stand, I say let them stand!

In every performance I’ve ever done (more than I care to count), whether the Hallelujah was a sing-along with the audience or not, the audience stood. All of my performances have been in the Midatlantic region of the USA (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York).

It’s never bothered me! People seem to enjoy the tradition.

Growing up in midwestern United States, it has always been pretty much a given that the audience will stand during Hallelujah chorus. I just attended a local performance this weekend and was reminded again of how much I feel that it is disruptive to the whole work, especially when the audience applauds afterward. That’s my opinion… what I am interested in is the reason behind the tradition… if you or anyone who responds to you has a speculation or has researched this, please let me know! Or include it in your compilation. Just one of those things that bothers me, I suppose, and I’ve always wanted to know why it came to be in the first place.

Greetings from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.

It is also a firmly entrenched tradition here. So this is how I have dealt with it. In my program notes I state that the tradition started because the King rose to stand at the beginning of the chorus. The traditions of the day demanded that the rest of the audience stand because the King rose. Thus, we do not know whether that original “standing” was because the entire audience was moved to stand, or whether they were simply following tradition. I then ask the audience to, if they are so moved, to stand not because some King stood centuries ago, but in recognition of the glorious message of the music and the unfathomable effort by Handel those 23 days in which he composed Messiah.

In the New York east/coast area of USA it is stand/ard fare to stand.

Here in London, Ontario, Canada, we’ve been performing the Messiah usually two or three times each Christmas Season for close to 20 years and always, the audience stands during the opening bars with no instruction from us. We know it’s going to happen and doesn’t bother us at all. No one in the audience has ever complained (to my knowledge) either.

It is also a firmly entrenched (and, IMHO, unfortunate) tradition everywhere I’ve heard or performed “Messiah” here in the U. S.

Of course, there is no musical (or “liturgical”) reason to stand during the Hallelujah chorus. However, it is a centuries-old tradition, and not one likely to die. I would certainly not recommend putting a blurb in the bulletin asking the people to remain seated. Illogical or no, many of them are going to feel cheated, others will think it’s sacrelegious. And I think I would stand anyway …

Why is a matter of some conjecture, but . . .

At the first London performance, in Covent Garden Theatre (23 March 1743), the whole assembly, with George II at its head, rose to its feet as this chorus opened, and remained standin to the end, thus establishing a tradition which is still maintained.

I teach in Alabama, but grew up and studied in New Jersey and Ohio.

Basically, I find that audiences who like to consider themselves “sophisticated” will stand because they know it is a long-held tradition. (I’m sure you know about the legend of King George being so moved by the music that he stood up, etc…)

My own feeling is that people may do what they wish. If it makes them feel knowledgeable, or gives them a connection to tradition, they may stand. If they think it is a silly custom, they may remain seated. I never print anything in the program either way.

These days the custom is generally to stand for the Hallelujah during a complete, or mostly complete, performance of Messiah, rather than for the excerpted chorus; but often people feel like they are “in the know” when they stand, and why disabuse them of this notion?

Tom — I’d say that in the USA, it’s accepted practice to stand for the “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah. I have never been to a performance where the program instructed the audience to remain seated, and at every performance I can recall attending, the audience stood automatically. I’m sure there have probably been SOME exceptions SOMEWHERE in the US, but I can confidently say that standing is the norm.

As a side note, I read an account that speculated that the reason King George stood during “Hallelujah” when Messiah was performed for him (and hence the tradition, of course) was that he was suffering from hemorrhoids!! Talk about dispelling a myth!

We performed the Christmas portion of the Messiah last Sunday evening at my church. We concluded with the Hallelujah chorus. The entire audience stood and then actually turned around to watch us, breaking out into spontaneous applause at its conclusion.

The tradition doesn’t really bother me. In a way, it is a tribute both to Handel and to the Messiah himself. I know that Robert Shaw is very adamant that standing on the Hallelujah chorus is a silly tradition which has little historical basis. I saw him perform the entire Messiah with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra one year in Atlanta and I believe that the program made a point of asking the audience to remain seated at that point.

The practice varies over here, too.

I have never attended or participated in a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ where the audience did not stand. I have lived in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida, and attended performances elsewhere in the U.S. Of course this is the ‘South,’ but, as I understand the tradition arose from King James standing during the performance, and when the King stood, everyone stood, so as not to be disrespectful. I know I have read this in program notes, and in other sources. Supposedly, this did not occur at the original performance, but at a later one in London.

From Singapore:

After the usual has been said about standing during Hallelujah, especially when King james who first did it, I don’t know what else I have to say to it.

I read from one of the jokes that says the true reason for King James to stand during the concert was that he sat for so long during the Messiah and felt an urgent need to go to ….you know where.

Personally,. I don’t see the neccesity. Unless the performance really moves you. Otherwise, why bother?

Further to your request to get answers from foreign countries, here’s one from France.

Here, audiences are never required to stand during a performance of any kind (unless that’s the only way they can see what’s going on !) They might just do it if they feel like it, but to tell you the truth, the Messiah’s Hallelujah is such an astounding moment that people had rather sit down to fully enjoy it . Standing up is a very uncomfortable posture, as you know…

Moreover, most French people do not have a very impressive faith, hence they would never understand why they’d have to stand up during a performance of sacred music, it might even upset them.

. . . audiences in Rhode Island stand for the chorus.

At most concert hall performances here in NYC, the audience remains seated. In CHURCH performances, I’ve seen the audience stand more often than not. I recall being told (in high school music history) that the standing tradition came about because the King had to go to the little boy’s room and tradition dictated that if he arose, so did everyone else. I don’t know if tradition also dictated that everyone else urinate at that time as well. 🙂

Except that King James was a full century before. The King in question would have been George II, whom George I left in England to rule his newly acquired subjects and who later became king in his own right. I have no idea whether or not he literally stood in awe of Handel’s evocative chorus, but if it was a king standing, George II was the culprit.

No doubt you will get many messages detailing history, but the truth probably is that the King George standing out of reverence idea is probably over romanticized (see Hogwood’s book on Handel). I usually include something in the program notes about why it has become customary to stand and then let them make up their own minds. I don’t make allowances for it. For some, it is their idea of culture, so I just leave them alone. Robert Shaw asks the audience NOT to stand during the chorus.

At the performances here in Northern New Mexico, we stand.

After having done a paper on Handel, I came to find that the standing explination is legend and may or may not be true. Some claim that the king arrived late for the performance and as was custom, his subjects stood to mark his entrance (late… he might as well have missed it at that point).

Another explination was that the king was so moved that he stood and his subjects followed suit.

My favorite explination was that the George had the gout and it acted up right at that moment, causing him to stand to get some relief. When the king stands, so to his subjects.

We may never know the real reason for this custom, but it is unusual and speculating is fun.

Once when I attended a performance of the Messiah in Paris, during the Hallelujah Chorus one woman stood–alone in the cathedral–as the rest of us remained seated! I guessed she was from England, and KNEW HOW IT WAS TO BE!!!

In a letter written in 1780, James Beattie seems to have given the first account of this the-king-standing business. He says, “. . . when that chorus struck up, ‘For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth’, they [the audience] were so transported that they all, together with the king (who happened to be present), started up, and remained standing till the chorus ended: and hence it became the fashion in England for the audience to stand while that part of the music is performing.” Given in O.E. Deutsch, _Handel: A Documentary Biography_, p. 854-55, and quoted in Donald Burrows, _Handel: Messiah_ (Cambridge Music Handbooks), p. 28. As Burrows points out, the fundamental question must be not whether the king stood up, but whether he was there at all. (There is no official record that he was there, but he might have gone in a private capacity so it cannot be proven that he was *not* there.)

It is, I think, at the very least a harmless custom and at best a very meaningful one for the audience to stand. But part of the custom is that standing is done *only* in complete performances of _Messiah_, and never in “selections from” or in a stand-alone (ahem!) performance.

But why did King George II stand for Hallelujah? He may have been in awe of the work. Some speculate, however, he was just tired of sitting and at the end of Part II just needed to stretch his legs. 🙂

On Monday night at our high school chorus concert, I told one of the versions of the story that I had learned about George II standing. He fell asleep, the introduction to the Hallelujah! startled him and he jumped to his feet! I don’t know if it’s true but it is a fun variation of the story. We then asked the audience to stand and proceded.

Tuesday night, a smaller group from the choir performed the Hallelujah! with our string orchestra at the instrumental concert. With out any prompting, the audience stood. The kids (and I) were shocked that this different audience (we have only 3 or 4 students who do both vocal and instrumental music, therefore only a few parents had been at the previous concert) knew of the tradition.

Friday morning we performed it for the student body. No one stood. It proves that we must teach our audience, not just sing *at* them.

Here in the states audiences usually respond by standing, sometimes with the attitude of “We know something that the rest of you poor slobs don’t!” I think you would do fine to let the audience themselves decide whether to stand or not. If a particular audience member has an issue, who says he or she has to stand? I was just at a performance of the Candlelight Ceremony held every year on Main Street in Disneyland, and I was one of the first to stand at the beginning of the Chorus, and sure enough….everyone else jumped to their feet, amongst many whispers of “It’s traditional!” I think you would offend a greater number of patrons who desire to stand than those few who would be offended by tradition. Those few…..well, they just need to get a life. 🙂

I like it when the audience is moved to take an active part in a musical performance, so I like it when they stand for the Hallelujah Chorus. I would consider it rude to tell the audience not to participate in this way. Also, it doesn’t matter if they are standing out of respect or to stretch their legs. Whether or not it is appropriate, depends on whether it disrupts the performance. As a conductor, it wouldn’t bother me.

I prefer the audience to remain seated (my own preference). On the occasions when I have printed a notice in the program, some stood and some did not (since most don’t really read the program during the concert because the audience lights are down in our theater). I find this reaction more disturbing than a more unified response either way.

On the occasions when I printed nothing in the program, most stood but many did not because our audience includes many students and others who are unaware of this tradition. (FYI, we are part of the City University of New York, so have a very mixed, urban kind of audience, in terms ethnic, national and cultural.) The result, of course, was that many were distracted from the music because they were wondering why all those folks were standing, if the concert was over, etc.!

If I had to do it again, I think I would make a verbal announcement before the Part that includes that piece, probably to remain seated.

And now– since you didn’t say, I am VERY eager to know exactly what the point was raised by the critics– which practice did they espouse?

I want to know how the tradition got started. I’ve heard various versions, but would like the “real one.” I know the king stood (have also heard the version that the king was walking in late) and since the king was standing, the congregation stood. Would like more info, please.

P.S. My choir sang the Hallalujah Chorus at the end of our concert Sunday. Most audience members stood and some didn’t. The energy in the room changes when they stand. The choir was most enervated!

We need to check theological history as well as just tradition of kings standing. Something that I learned in seminary: the king was the “favored” and “appointed” of God and sometimes referred to as my “lord king”. Consequently, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth was interpreted not only as “God” but as God’s agent, the king. Henceforth – the glories of the temporal king were also being sung and the king stands — (ah, the glories of being king and above all) and naturally everyone else stands because no one’s head is to be higher than the kings.

It’s a Canadian tradition, for sure. I like the sense of involvement it gives, between performers and audience.

I think it is traditional everywhere in the English speaking world. I’ve sung or listened to the thing in several states in the U.S.(from Iowa to New Jersey) and here in the Toronto area and the only place they didn’t automatically stand was in a veteran’s home where everyone was in wheel chairs. I’ve also heard quite a few different stories (some pretty funny) about how the tradition started.

In every “Messiah” performance I’ve ever done (or attended) here in Washington, DC, most of the audience stands — with some folks happily jumping to their feet, either to demonstrate their cultural “knowledge” or to get a chance to stretch before the break. I have never, however, seen the Queen (or any king) present at any of these performances.

I was told the story that the King of England rose for the Hallelujah Chorus, and when the King rises, everyone does, and that’s how the tradition started. I’m not sure of the validity of the story, but the tradition still exists. Every Messiah concert I’ve been to (in the western US) has had the audience stand for the Hallelujah Chorus.

Though a firmly entrenched custom here in the United State, I always thought standing for the Hallelujah Chorus was a little silly. Especially when the it is performed outside the context of the oratorio. However, having just sat through a (wonderful) performance of Messiah two days ago, I can tell you I was extremely grateful to stand and stretch my legs… There was no intermission after Part 2. Sitting in the audience (as opposed to performing) changed my mind on this subject.

I thought this was a purely British tradition. In France, standing during the Messiah Hallelujah is definitely not done. We do stand during La Marseillaise…

I’m glad you asked the question (sorry, I don’t have the answer other than the typical story about the king being so impressed that he stood). I look forward to your compilation.

One thing I do wish to share, whenever we do the chorus, I always turn to the audience before we start and ask them to rise (like in your neck of the woods, it is a pretty firm tradition here (Tampa, FL)). I ask them to rise, because what really bothers me is all the commotion which takes place in the first 10 – 15 bars of the piece (when you don’t make them rise) while they decide to rise and take their noisy time getting up.

Then there’s the story that the King was supposedly rather hard of hearing, and stood because he thought they were playing God Save the King.