Alleluia: Definition, Music & Chords

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Alleluia is a popular religious word that many composers have set to music down through the centuries. In this lesson, you'll have the chance to learn about the word's history and meaning while exploring several famous musical examples.

Alleluia: History and Meaning

In your religious or secular life, you may have at one time used the word, 'alleluia', but did you know that it originated from a much older word: hallelujah or halleluyah? Hallelujah is an ancient sacred Hebrew word comprised of two smaller units. The first part, hallel, means 'praise'. In the Old Testament, Psalms 113-118 are sometimes referred to collectively as the 'Hymn of Praise' and repeatedly call upon the reader to praise God. The 'jah' or 'yah' is an abbreviation for Yahweh, the name of God. When we combine both parts of the word, we see that hallelujah means 'Praise the Lord'.

When the Psalms and other older scriptures were translated into Greek sometime during the third century B.C., hallelujah became alleluia. This newer spelling was also carried over into later Latin translations. Hallelujah appears 24 times in the Old Testament Psalms. However, in the New Testament, the word appears only in the Book of Revelation 19:1-6.

Musical Examples

Easter Alleluia Chant
Easter Alleluia chant

The words alleluia or hallelujah can be found in a variety or musical settings. A musical setting is a composition based upon a literary sample. In many denominations, especially the Roman Catholic faith, the use of alleluia is avoided during Lent, the 40-day season that precedes Easter. When the word is used on Easter Sunday and during the Easter season, it's with a renewed emphasis that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. For example, the 'Easter Alleluia' is a special chant sung at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. As shown in the above image, the word alleluia is sung in an extended and florid style and then repeated twice, each time in a higher key.

Hallelujah Chorus by Handel
Handel Hallelujah

Perhaps alleluia's most familiar setting can be heard in Handel's 'Hallelujah Chorus', part of his Messiah (1741), which is based upon Revelation 19:6. We also find the word in many of his other choruses, such as the 'Hallelujah, Amen' from Judas Maccabeus (1746). Mozart's solo motet, Exsultate, jubilate, K.165 (1773), a stylized vocal composition, closes with the 'Alleluja'. This famous setting was written for a well-known singer of the period. Additional examples include Beethoven's 'Hallelujah Chorus' heard during the finale of his Christ on the Mount of Olives (1803). Based upon a poem by Franz Huber, the vocals represent a chorus of singing angels.

In July 1940, American composer Randall Thompson was commissioned to write a special alleluia setting for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, MA. Written in the form of a theme and variations, its sad setting was inspired by the fall of France during World War II. The only other word heard during the composition is an 'amen' at the end.

Alleluia by Randall Thompson
Thompson Alleluia

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