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"Alleluia", Randall Thompson

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Bel Canto Male Choir

Thompson's Alleluia

by Jonathan Cohen

 

A lovely item from the early repertoire of Bel Canto, that we are currently reviving, is the male voice version of Alleluia, the magnum opus of contemporary American composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984).

Yes Thompson spells the opening word without an "H" (perhaps evoking associations with pre-Baroque church music?) and this word alone, with no variations whatsoever, is repeated throughout the piece. There is nothing more to the libretto than Alleluia - Praises* (oh yes, and a final "Amen"). To whom the praise is directed, and for what, may perhaps depend on the context in which it is sung. Certainly it is by no means an ecclesiastical work, in fact it was commissioned by the trustees of the Boston Symphony orchestra for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center in 1940.

thompson.jpg

To hear a vocal recording of the Alleluya (by another male choir), click on the link below:

The idea was for it to be sung at the opening ceremony by the entire student body, but this nearly didn't happen, as opening day approached and there was no sign of the comissioned score. According to legend the head of the center's choral department received a copy of the score a mere 45 minutes before the ceremony began, and commented to his large chorus: "Well, text at least is one thing we won't have to worry about."

The performance launched a tradition, and every summer the Alleluia is performed at the center's opening

The opening dynamic is Lento, which stands in obvious contrast to the usual intonation of the word that is its sole lyric. This needs to be understood in a historical context. France had just fallen to the Nazis and Thompson explained: "The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous here it is comparable to the book of Job, where it is written: 'The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord'."

Unusually, both commonly performed versions of the Alleluia (SATB and TTBB) were written by the composer himself.

 

An unusual attribute of Thompson's work generally is that, enviably, most of it was, like the Alleluia itself, comissioned.

Once, while at work on a composition, one of Thompson's students asked him in what "style" he was writing. "In my same old style," the composer replied. Although Thompson's answer might seem self-deprecating to us, there is more than a grain of truth to it. For his career of more than 60 years, Thompson composed in a strikingly unified style.

His compositions, however, don't all sound the same. Thompson's works are deeply rooted in the music of the past, yet keenly aware of contemporary developments (a phrase lifted staight from Stravinsky is evident in the Alleluia). Not only did he break free from the heavy influence of 19th century Romanticism, he is considered my many to have established a uniquely American choral style.

* Note: I have written above that Alleluia (or Halleluya) means simply "praises". This is not unequivocal but actually a matter of dispute among classical Hebrew scholars: 
 
1) The word can be taken to mean "Praises" in the plural (that is, a 'set' of praises, as a kartisiya is a  'set' of kartisim). In this case the ending "yod heh" is taken as a collective plural of Hallels (praises)
 
2) Alternatively it may be a contraction of "Hallelu" (praise - imperative) followed by the name of God, and therefore mean "Praise God".
 
I assumed the former explanation mainly for rhetoric ("To whom and for what may depend on the context in which it is sung"). It is I suppose more likely that Thompson assumed the latter meaning.