A Quiet Alleluia, Famous for 75 Years

Jul 6, 2015

This week in July of 1940, one of the most loved and most sung choral works - written by a composer living in Philadelphia - was premiered in western Massachusetts. But Randall Thompson’s Alleluia is almost the opposite of an “alleluia.”

Over five days he took the word Alleluia and turned it on its head.

From Randall Thompson, the composer who was then the Director of the Curtis Institute of Music, conductor Serge Koussevitzky requested a loud and festive choral fanfare. It was to open the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood.

But this was July 1940, and Thompson couldn’t do festive, not then. Evil was spreading in Europe in a world war America was debating whether to join; France had fallen the month before. So what did Thompson compose?

Over five days he took the word “Alleluia”—literally, “Praise the Lord”—and turned it on its head, just as (he said later) it is in the Book of Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Thompson calls this a sad piece, this six-minute slow and insistent layered intoning of “Alleluia,” ending in “Amen.” It’s about the last thing you’d think of composing for an alleluia or for a fanfare. But Alleluia by Randall Thompson is one of the most beloved choral works of all time.