Randall Thompson, Alleluia

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born April 21, 1899 in New York City
Died July 9, 1984 in Cambridge, MA
Composed July 1–5, 1940
Premiered July 8, 1940, conducted by G. Wallace Woodworth, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood
Performance Time: Approximately 6 minutes
Instruments for this performance: a cappella chorus

Randall Thompson was an undergraduate and later a longtime faculty member at Harvard, but in between those stints in Cambridge, Mass., he also studied and taught elsewhere. After graduation, he worked privately with Ernest Bloch; over the years, he counted personalities as diverse as Leonard Bernstein, Frederic Rzewski, and Richard Wilson among his students.

Thompson’s most famous work is his Alleluia for a cappella chorus, written a few years before he joined the Harvard faculty. Here the composer showed that there was still plenty of great music to be written in the key of D major in 1940. But his was not the triumphant, celebratory D major of Handel’s Alleluia chorus from Messiah. In Thompson’s own words, ‟It is a slow, sad piece, and…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.’”

The work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Berkshire Music Center (now the Tanglewood Music Center) when it opened for the first time. Because of the war in Europe, the composer felt that a jubilant Alleluia was out of place, and composed a quiet, introspective piece, in mostly soft dynamics with only a single fortissimo outburst near the end. The harmonies are simple throughout, although some subtle chromatic inflections give the work a special flavor. The work is mostly homophonic, which makes the few contrapuntal passages all the more striking.

Written in five days at the beginning of July 1940, Alleluia was first performed on July 8, 1940 at Tanglewood, under the direction of G. Wallace Woodworth. (Affectionately known as Woody, Woodworth was a longtime professor and university organist at Harvard, where he also led the famous Glee Club for 25 years, in addition to being the director of the Radcliffe Choral Society.) To this day, Thompson’s Alleluia, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is performed at the opening of the Tanglewood Music Festival every summer.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.