Randal Thompson's Alleluia was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor at the time, to grace the opening ceremony of the Berkshire Music Center, today Tanglewood. It premiered on July 8, 1940, conducted by Wallace Woodworth (Forbes and Randall 2). Thompson was chosen due to his being an Alumni of Harvard. Students from the university were scheduled to perform at the opening ceremony. Since Thompson had been commissioned to undertake another project, he was not present during the maiden performance. He submitted the work, albeit on the very day of the performance. Wallace would have just 45 minutes to go through the score before taking charge (Schmidt 304). The song has remained the opening theme for Tanglewood every year and is one of the few American choral music pieces that are most frequently performed.
Randal Thompson studied at Harvard where he graduated and later became a longtime member of its faculty. Upon his graduation, he had chosen to operate privately, collaborating with Ernest Bloch. As he developed in his career, he would mold individuals like Richard Wilson, Fredric Rzewski, and Leonard Bernstein who passed through his hands. His dedication to his work and competence was evident in his work and his teaching (Schmidt 307). Looking at Alleluia, one sees a man who focused on precision, relevance, and originality. With just six minutes required for the performance, the piece engages its audience from start to end. To achieve this feat, Thompson needed less than a week.
Thompson created a short acapella choral work with the iterated words Alleluia and the punctuating amen. At the time of its composition, the world's attention was focused on the war in Europe. Randall's composition, therefore, considered that the mood would not be right for a jubilant Alleluia. He thus chose a reflective and quiet piece and employed soft dynamics that were in sync with the somber mood. There is just one fortissimo outburst that occurs towards the end of the piece, perhaps signifying the expected jubilation at the end of the long war (Forbes and Randall 8). The choice of simple harmonies for the entire length of the song and the subtle positioning of chromatic inflections in the background ensured that the piece achieved a unique flavor that it retains to date (Sparger 14).
After the performance, Thompson admitted that just weeks before his composition, France had fallen to German Nazis, something that had made his heart sink. Alleluia is a Christian worship term used for praise. He wanted to bring out the element of celebration while still taking note of the loss and destruction that was ongoing (Schmidt 308). Subsequently, he came up with an elegantly composed piece whose mystical aura captures the mood of the time traditionally. The piece was positively received and has remained to be identified with Tanglewood opening ceremonies, more than seven decades later.
Thompson was very particular with the effect his piece was intended to achieve. He insisted that the music used in the piece was not to be made to sound joyous (Yarustovsky 124). He compared it to the Biblical writings in the book of Job indicating that what the Lord had given, he had taken back and for that, the Lord needed to be blessed (Forbes and Randall 10). These words were consistent with the events of the war where sons were lost, but hope remained alive. For its simplicity, brevity, and precision in capturing the mood, it has stayed revered.
Forbes, Elliot, and Randall Thompson. "The Music of Randall Thompson." The Musical Quarterly 35.1 (1949): 1-25. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/739577.pdf
Schmidt, Carl B. "The Unknown Randall Thompson:" Honkytonk Tunesmith, Broadway Ivory-Tickler." American Music (2009): 302-326. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25602280.pdf
Sparger, A. Dennis. "A study of selected choral works of Randall Thompson." (1965). Retrieved from: https://thekeep.eiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5300&context=theses
Yarustovsky, Boris. "Journey to America." Journal of Research in Music Education 10.2 (1962): 121-128. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3343995.pdf
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