The Hallelujah Chorus

Let’s just get the Shrek connection out of the way. The strange inclusion of the song “Hallelujah” in the enormously successful 2001 animated film (that launched a million sequels) helped put Leonard Cohen’s enormously influential but not yet incredibly well known composition on the popular music radar, especially when the Shrek soundtrack CD went double platinum. I remember scratching my head that the DreamWorks team had managed to secure the rights to this stunning piece of music and then plopped it into a scene about the strained love between an ogre and a rather unattractively animated Scottish princess named Fiona.

But never mind about that now. We can thank Shrek for resurrecting, in a sense, the song and then inspiring additional beautiful interpretations and recordings. We might even blame it for the subsequent rash of “Hallelujah” placements. I’ve heard it played in sitcoms and dramas and films and homemade slideshows. But my love for the song, despite its near ubiquity, is a testament to its beautiful bones and powerful words. Cohen crafted a versatile classic that has suited many voices over the years, even amateur karaoke singers, and inspired moments of transcendent beauty that make me shiver. Thank you, Wikipedia, for informing me that his song was “Written in the key of C major, [and] the chord progression follows the lyric “it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift”: C, F, G, A minor, F.” While I don’t fully understand the music theory, I admire Cohen’s clever word and music play.

First, Leonard Cohen’s take. The songwriter released the song in 1984 – just barely, he says, since the label did not love the tune – to little acclaim. During his many live performances of this song over the subsequent decades, he added or changed up the lyrics, penning something like 80 different verses in all. As a religious person who also loves popular culture, I take particular delight in the Biblical allusions found in Cohen’s lyrics, including, of course, the title, “Hallelujah,” a praise of God. Then Cohen’s song begins by referencing David, the Hebrew boy/giant-slayer who grew into Israel’s triumphant (and also adulterous) king: “Well, I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” In fact, the secret chord is the sequence mentioned above. Cohen’s line “The baffled king composing Hallelujah,” followed by a string of “hallelujahs” adds to the religious under and overtones. Said religious motifs in turn add substance to the song’s verses. This is a song about love, but not the kind of infatuation experienced by schoolchildren. This song is about the kind of love we offer to God and the kind of love we pray to God that we will be able to survive.

The second verse continues with the story of David. The lyrics “You saw her bathing on the roof/Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you” allude to poor Bathsheba, King David’s comely neighbor who would eventually lose her husband Uriah to David’s military machinations, and who would then lose the child she conceived with David. Bathsheba’s story (one I taught in Gospel Doctrine) is the familiar tale of a powerful man wreaking havoc as he insists he have what he desires. She never had a choice, nor a chance. Cohen’s allusion to this story adds to the desperation of many of the “hallelujahs” sung in the choruses. David was so consumed by love and power that he murdered a man, broke his own life, lost a child, then cried mightily to God for forgiveness (see Psalms). It was not a happily ever after, nor is Cohen’s song.

Cohen also alludes to the Biblical story of Samson, man of magical hair, a Nazarite, whose covenant with God gave him unfathomable strength meant to destroy the Philistines (of which tribe Goliath was also a member), and Delilah, the cunning woman Samson loved who destroyed him for Philistine money: “She broke your throne and she cut your hair/ And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah” is the end of the first verse. The implication is clear – love is often a surrender and defeat.

Other religious allusions in Cohen’s song include these lines, “But remember when I moved in you/And the holy dove was moving too/And every breath we drew was Hallelujah,” which may very well be the most delicately erotic description of sexual intercourse I’ve heard sung.…and these lines, which feel like the cynical conclusions of someone who has loved and lost and longed for relief:

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

For those new to Leonard’s singing, let me share that I’ve heard more than one non-Cohen fan hear a few measures of his singing and offer a WTF glance in my direction. To appreciate Cohen’s deep, grumbly expressiveness is to understand that autotune and big belty nationally-aired performance contests are not the be all and end all of vocal beauty. This live performance of “Hallelujah, so slow that his 6/8 almost feels like 4/4, adds in the flavor of gospel crooners and Hammond organ to his distinctive bass. It is the singing of a wise man.

Later, in the early 1990s, John Cale recorded his version of “Hallelujah” for the Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan. Cale’s piano-accompanied version was a bit faster than Cohen’s original version, with sweeter vocals, of course – and it’s Cale that Shrek audiences heard in the film (though Rufus Wainwright’s version, quite similar to Cale’s arrangement, is what showed up on the Shrek soundtrack.) Cale does a lovely job, though the aesthetics of the verses are not wildly different from each other, but we can cut him a little slack as he was tasked with selecting from those 80 verses that Cohen had written which ones to perform. Cale’s singing of “Hallelujah” showed that the song had legs. It is the singing of a thoughtful man.

Rufus Wainwright’s version, mentioned above and heard by millions in the 21st century, sounds like a younger, more Judy Garland-esque interpretation of John Cale’s performance. Wainwright’s voice makes the listener fall in love with him, at least a little. Full disclosure: it was Wainwright’s cover of this Cohen song, plus my love of his mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, that piqued my initial interest in the Canadian singer-songwriter years ago. Wainwright’s “Hallelujah” keeps the steady tempo, the piano accompaniment, the singer at the keyboard, the crooner in a nightclub feel, then adds a deep wash of color to the song. It is the singing of a sensitive man.

In 2004, k.d. lang’s buttercream frosting-voiced version of “Hallelujah,” her sweet, flexible alto on full display, appeared on her record Hymns of the 49th Parallel. She gave several stunning live performances, including one at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, which brought many, many people to their feet. She also sang it for Cohen at a performance in honor of his career, and apparently, Cohen liked her version very much. Who wouldn’t? Her “Hallelujah” is a virtuoso performance, with exquisite phrasing, intonation and expressiveness. It is the singing of a gifted woman.

This song has such depth and such staying power that someone even made a documentary about it, the 2008 BBC Radio “The Fourth, The Fifth, The Minor Fall” (no longer available for viewing online, but with information found here.)

My favorite version of the song, however, is the studio recording sung by American singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley on his album, 1994’s Grace. Does the shadow of Buckley’s untimely death at age 30 add to the tragic beauty of the recording? Probably. As I listen to his singing, I feel a wistful squeeze around my heart, knowing that his version would not explode into the public consciousness until many years after his death by drowning in 1997. There is so much Buckley did not live to see or do or sing or experience, including the success of his “Hallelujah.” But it is a treasure. It makes me weep and exult. Does that sound like hyperbole? It is not. Buckley’s raw, gorgeous singing brings me to my knees.

His studio ecording starts with an exhalation of breath. Then a slow, mournful guitar melody begins to take shape, the hint of a waltz with its 1,2,3 underneath. Then the guitar transitions into picked arpeggios that ease the song back to its original 6/8 time signature. Verse 1 presents Buckley’s breathy whisper, almost as if Buckley is singing to himself, and his first chorus is nearly nondescript, as though he is simply tracing the steps he will walk in the verses and choruses to come. Verse 2 picks up volume and a just a little steam; the guitar is plucked, echoing the sound, perhaps, of David’s harp. Buckley’s voice in the second chorus is clear, but still muted. Then comes verse 3 with these confessional lyrics: “I used to live alone before I knew you.” There is vocal bravado, like an overcoat lined with pain. The hallelujahs that follow are stronger, but hurt, so that when he sings in the 4th verse about the movement of the holy dove and the sexual union the two of them have enjoyed, he manages to share both the pleasure and joy of the memory, while undercutting that pleasurable joy with stabbing pain.

Then comes a guitar solo with a single dancing note tripping from Buckley’s voice to his fingers to our ears, readying the listener for what will come. It is as though after full consideration of the stories and reminiscences of the struggles, the singer has come to that cynical conclusion mentioned above, the one about love being a competition for survival. Buckley’s singing is loud and wounded, and then his voice seems to fold into itself. We hear a sustained high note that hovers quietly, yet clearly for an impossible number of beats and measures, so long that I first wondered if I was hearing an instrument other than the human voice. But no, it is Buckley singing. And singing. And still singing.

This definitive performance of “Hallelujah, so evocative that I prefer to listen by myself so that I feel free to choke up or sing along, is a revelation. It is the singing of a man who must know what it means to be broken.

And it is a song that teaches me.

Hallelujah.

Here is a video of Buckley singing. The version is not quite the same as the studio album, but the opportunity to watch him sing is meaningful.