Irving Fine composed his a capella setting known as A Short Alleluiain 1945 for the Bryn Mawr College Chorus, which had asked him for a brief work that would reflect his Jewish heritage while resonating with general audiences.
The word itself, alleluia, has a long and complicated musical as well as liturgical history in Judaic tradition as well as in Christian rites and, later, in Western art music. And it has accumulated a large musical repertoire in all three phases. It is the Latin form of the Hebrew hal’luya—an expression of praise to the Almighty that is usually rendered in English as “praise Ye the Lord” or “praise be to God,” using the first syllable of the actual proper Hebrew name of God—which derives from the Book of Psalms. More specifically, it occurs in Psalms 110–118 (111–113, 115–117), known as the Halleluya Psalms in Jewish liturgical tradition. The expression is also echoed in the Book of Revelations—19:1, 3, 4, 6—in the last case as the cry of “a great multitude in heaven.”
In Judaic tradition as well as in Christian exegesis, halleluya/alleluia has been understood originally as a “song sung by men and angels,” so that when adopted by the early Church, the so-called Halleluya Psalm (versus alleluiaticus) became the archetype of melismatic chant.
Some scholars have suggested links between pre-monotheistic worship of the new moon (i.e., predating the ancient Hebrews and the Book of Psalms) and the halleluya, but acceptance of that thesis is by no means universal.
Eric Werner, one of the preeminent Judaic music scholars of the 20th century, has emphasized that the halleluya pronouncement and intonation was one of the few acclamations in which the “unlearned” could join actively in the ancient Temple rite, as a form of popular worship—even from afar—and then, later, in the early Christian rituals. And he has shown that the halleluya originally formed an integral part of both the ancient Hebrew and the early Christian doxologies. The euphonic and exultant halleluya would give, even to primitive listeners, an opportunity to join vocally in proclaiming praise for God. This suggests that, notwithstanding whatever politically elitist attitudes may have been harbored by the priests at various times and whatever the extent to which the Temple worship represented a nondemocratic and hierarchical, if not aristocratic, form, the liturgical function of the halleluya was a priestly scheme to organize a degree of limited popular participation in the Temple ritual.
Apart from that function, there is no hard evidence that—in its original context, viz., the Psalter, or Psalm renderings—the halleluya had a dominant liturgical role. However, it also became separated in both the Synagogue and the Church from its original texts (the Psalms in which it occurs) and was added to many other types of liturgical poetry as acclamation or as pneumatic (i.e., abstract spiritual) utterance. This led to a type of disembodiment of the halleluya. In certain circumscribed environments, it became enhanced by forms of ecstatic musical rendering, assuming a distinctly mystical character. In turn, that phenomenon later manifested itself in a tradition of musical settings consisting exclusively of multiple repetition of the single word alleluia—a tradition that extended into Western art music as late as the 20th century.
Halleluya (or alleluia) renderings and pronouncements were used in the early Church in a wide variety of forms. By the time Roman liturgy was at the point of becoming diffused, if not earlier, sung alleluias were already entrenched in all Christian liturgies, having been a feature of both Eastern and Western Church liturgies since at least the 4th century. In the history of the Church, the Judaic origin of alleluia singing is affirmed by Augustine, Isadore, and other Church fathers. Isadore, for example, refers to the alleluia as a specifically Hebrew contribution: “The Lauds, that is, alleluia singing, is a Hebrew kind of song” (Patrologia Latina). Moreover, the “Chant of the Alleluia”—the second musical insertion between the Lessons (in the Roman Church)—is given in virtually all liturgical textbooks as a direct legacy of the Synagogue.
Throughout the historical development of church music, and especially in Gregorian chant, alleluia melodies or chants are typically melismatic. Augustine refers to such extended melismatic chant as ecstatic praise of God. One of the most prominent characteristic features of these melismatic alleluia renderings in Church contexts is known as the jubilus—the long, extended textless melisma sung on the final syllable or vowel of the word alleluia in Gregorian chant. Often, that melisma incorporates patterns of repetition. The Judaic origin of the jubilus is evident in its historically inseparable connection with the Hebrew halleluya. And its etymology involves a fusion of Hebrew and Latin: the Hebrew yovel (trumpetlike or ram’s horn blast, thus its meaning as a cry of joy or jubilation or the celebration of an anniversary) and the Latin jubilare (to call or shout joyously). Augustine appears to relate it to an early Christian practice of “speaking in tongues.” However, whether ornate melismas on that final vowel (even without repetition) were already a feature of ancient Temple Hebrew psalmody as rendered by the Levitical choirs—or the degree to which that final vowel may have been ornamented melismatically as part of the finalis in an otherwise basically syllabic Psalm rendition or chant pattern—remains an issue of contention among musicological and liturgical scholars. Werner embraced the view that such ornate melismas do indeed have their origin in Temple practice (especially on those occasions or during those periods when halleluya may not have constituted a popular response form). Some scholars in the field of Church chant who have revisited his work are now less certain.
In Church music and its liturgical tradition, the term alleluia can also signify—in addition to its independent rendering—a liturgical text or text verse to which alleluia is added; a text surrounded by alleluias; or one or more verses of liturgical text punctuated by alleluias. These entities are known as “alleluia verses.” In their rendition, the jubilus can also recur in the verse part, especially at its end where it frequently incorporates some patterns of repetition.
Werner views the jubilus of the early Church (and, in his supportable conjecture, the early Synagogue) as a “musical wordless ecstatic hymn.” It was his conviction that the entire concept of pure, wordless melismatic jubilation should be “considered the last . . . remnant of an organized form of musical glossolaly [utterances in tongues]”—and also the last vestige of an early period of spontaneity in the Church rites, which was later converted to a form of organized melismatic psalmody.
In any case, a tradition of wordless melismatic singing has permeated Judaic worship in various forms in the two millennia following the Temple era. This includes purported halleluya renditions of the Essenes; melismatic chant in medieval Jewish mysticism (against which RaShBa [Solomon ben Abraham Adret] issued a responsum in the 14th century); the fashion of elaborate vocalises in many Central and Western European synagogues from at least the late Baroque period to the modern era; the highly ornamented syllable extensions of traditional eastern European hazzanut of the 19th and early 20th centuries; and the most familiar of all its guises: the wordless niggunim of the Hassidim, and, especially their more extended, drawn out melodies known as d’vekut. And Temple psalmody, which of course includes the hallleluya renditions, represents the earliest period to which we can trace that possible if not likely precedent.
Of the many concert alleluia compositions in the standard choral literature, Mozart’s may be the best known. Another by the American composer Randall Thompson was, until recently, sung at one time or another by virtually all American high school and adult amateur choirs in the United States.
In this composition, Fine explores and exploits the rhythmic possibilities of varying the stresses on the word alleluia in an appropriate mood of joyful celebration.
Performers: Michael Brewer, Conductor; Laudibus
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