Monday, January 24, 2011


I've always been partial to the word Alleluia. I love spelling it, I love saying it, and most of all, I love singing it and hearing it sung. (For the record, though, I'm not a fan of using it in conversation in place of "awesome" or "cool".) It is a real penance for me to go without saying it during the six weeks of Lent. I have observed that if a song contains the word alleluia, it is an almost sure bet that I will love it. From my childhood love of the Handel's Hallelujah Chorus and the nuns' Alleluia chorus in The Sound of Music, to Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" (my favorite piece in college), to a more recent discovery called "Glory Bound" by the Wailin Jennys, many of my favorite pieces of music contain the "A" word.

Yesterday, I was at a benefit concert for my school, and I heard a piece of music performed that takes the cake. It is one of the most moving and beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard, yet it consists of only a single word: Alleluia. Yet the composer makes this one word do so much. It conveys sorrow, hope in the midst of suffering, peace, acceptance, gratitude.

"Alleluia" was written by American composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984) in 1940. The group I heard perform it mentioned that I was written during World War II and that the composer wanted to convey the reality of the suffering throughout the world at that time. I found an except from an article in Harvard Magazine which gives a little more background on the piece: "The anthem’s tempo mark of lento was very important to the composer. France had just fallen to the Nazis, and Thompson later 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.’"

It is a subdued piece of music, not the kind of thing you'd expect to hear on Easter Sunday, for example. Yet I would argue that it conveys the fullness of the Paschal Mystery. Towards the end, joy and excitement enter in, the pace picks up, only to slow again in a beautiful, hushed close. The triumph of Christ's Resurrection doesn't mean that we forget the depths of suffering which He underwent for our salvation. We should no more forget what hundreds of thousands suffered during World War II and other great tragedies, our own suffering or that of our loved ones, than we should forget what Christ suffered for our sake. But I think this piece of music is a great reminder that with Christ, we never have to suffer alone. He will bring us through all the suffering this life entails to a place of peace if we only allow Him to lead us there.

Perhaps part of the reason I so love the word Alleluia is that it is at least partially untranslatable. I don't totally know what I am saying when I say alleluia. Often when I experience deep joy or deep sorrow, I am at a loss for words. Alleluia is a great word when there are no words. As Christians, we are called to sorrow and to joy in suffering. As Christians, we are called to say alleluia.

Here is a link to the best recording I could find on youtube. It is sung by the South Dakota State University Concert Choir. Enjoy!

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