Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen 1934 - 2016 #
Leonard Cohenbegan composing Hallelujah in 1979, and finally recorded it in 1984 to mixed reviews. Sony refused to release it. It then it took another 15 years for it to become accepted as a work of genius.
How fragile and elusive success is. Where does conceptual artwork come from? When asked where his magic came from, Cohen replied: Ï don’t know; if I knew, I’d go there more often". He ascribes it as luck. We can’t command life; it just happens.
Ultimately Hallelujah became a collaborative project with Bob Dylan and Influences by John Cale and Jeff Buckley. Today it is considered Cohen’s most popular and accomplished song.
Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and harmony leave a lot to the imagination – which is maybe the whole point. He himself said that he chose the word ‘Hallelujah’ because it means so much in so many ways – as the whole song can. Its incantatory effect can be haunting.
‘‘Hallelujah’’ is derived from two Hebrew words which, taken together, mean ‘‘Praise God’’ (‘‘Yah’’).
Initially it conveys a celebratory ecstacy of lovemaking, before evoking colder more frustrated feelings of pining for lost love or libido.
The song rhymes ‘‘Hallelujah’’ with ‘‘do ya’’, ‘‘overthrew ya’’, ‘‘to ya’’ and, less satisfactorily, ‘‘fool ya’’. So it’s a kind of joke – the high-flown Hebrew contrasted with colloquial English – though for some reason, Rufus Wainwright insists on singing ‘‘you’’, in the process destroying both the rhymes and the joke.¹
Mungo MacCallum settled among the island of Hydra’s colony of expatriate bohemians including Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift and a young Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen, whom Mungo remembers as “an introspective opium smoker who worried ceaselessly about the quality of his orgasms”.*
Most attraction begins with carnal desire – lust, but if it grows into love and caring, the sexual act morphs from animal instincts transcending to the human and possibly, to the divine – “Hallelujah”!
Nicky Gemmell writes:
“The female path to orgasm is such a fragile, delicate one, so easily lost. Our orgasms are shy little things to coax out, insisting on concentration and focus and then of course complete abandonment; such a tricky combination”.
Or Alice Munro::
It takes time to surrender; to enter the sacred, exhilarating zone when we’re jolted into life, combusted into light. The best sex involves a sense of connecting on the deepest level, with two people who are utterly in the moment”.
Malcolm Gladwell explores the creative process in art, literature and music. Gladwell maintains genius can take time to emerge, with two trajectories: some artists (through the muses) create immediately, early, while young, quick and clear – conceptual innovators
- Keats, Melville, Picasso, Dylan, ..
Others take a long time being more mature, considered, tortured – experimental innovators
– Chaucer, Yeats, Thomas Gray, Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen.
Many people, including myself for many years, have enjoyed this song without being aware of its possible meanings. T.S. Eliot claims you can enjoy poetry before you understand it.
Many officials have used it at pompous or religious ceremonies without realising what its hidden meanings alluded to.
For some twenty years the song lay dormant until the Shrek version gave it oxygen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebtqoKHyHzk Many other artists began to sing various versions.
These are the Lyrics, as sung by Cohen at his London concert in 2009**. **https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrLk4vdY28Q
Text: These are some of the eighty verses of song, sung by Cohen at his London concert in 2009.
Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen #
Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord That David played and it pleased the Lord But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
Well it goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Now maybe there’s a God above
As for me
And all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone
Who outdrew you.
But it’s not a crime that you hear tonight
It’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light
It’s cold and it’s a broken a broken Hallelujah
Oh, people I’ve been here before,
I’ve known this room,
And I’ve walked this floor,
You -see I used to live alone
Before I knew ya
And I’ve seen your flag
On the marble arch
Love is not some kind of a victory march.
No, It’s cold and it’s a very lonely
a broken Hallelujah
There was a time
You’d let me know
What’s really going on below
But now, now you never show it to me
I remember when I moved in you?
The holy dark (dove) she was moving too
And every breath we drew
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did What’s it to ya?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or broken hallelujah.
It’s not a cry you can
Hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s
Seen the light
It’s cold and it’s a broken
a broken Hallelujah
I’ve done my best
I know it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel so I learned to touch
I’ve told the truth
I didn’t come here to London
Just to fool ya
And even though it went all wrong
I’ll stand right here before the lord of song
With nothing, nothing on
my tongue but Hallelujah
Analysis of Cohen’s Hallelujah #
Cohen’s song appears a subversion of Handel’s iconic Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah with its pious uplifting hope.
The song, Hallelujah, appears to evoke the various stages of love from the overpowering of sexual attraction, to spiritual ecstasy, through to its waning. Each of its varied stanzas is followed by what can be considered orgasmic Hallelujahs, some triumphant, yet many wistfully and plaintively nostalgic – perhaps even frustrated; “*But now you never even show it to me” *as his passing loves seem to shrivel and fade to mere lust, echoing Marvell’s “quaint honour turn to dust, / And into ashes all my lust;
Saul was a daring military leader, yet he proved to be unstable, subject to deep bouts of depression, impetuous violence, and repeated violations of religious law. David, a young shepherd from Judah, was summoned to soothe Saul’s fits of madness with the music of his lyre. In *Ovid’s The Art of Love, The son of Phillyra (Chiron, the chief Centaur) made the boy Achilles skilled at the lyre; and with his soothing art he subdued his ferocious disposition.
Later, as King David, his imperative sexual urge, with its wild and aggressive lust for gratification, overpowers him, ogling the married Bathsheba bathing. After he has dispensed with her husband Uriah, by putting him in the forefront of battle, he sires a son called Solomon with Bathsheba. This merges into an allusion to Samson and Delilah, who is diminished when his hair is cut. Do women ultimately emasculate men? Anthony by Cleopatra?
Cohen’s approach is more melancholic, expressing regrets of leaving and loss. The impermanence – ephemeral nature of love. He had a longstanding reputation as a perennial “ladies’ man” (“I’m always leaving,” he once quipped wryly). It is so ambiguous and antipodal you can never really settle on conclusive answers. Navigating from the free love of the sixties became difficult with the rising awareness of sexual politics and political correctness.
Yet Cohen maintains romance is
“the only game in town. The older you get the lonelier you get and the deeper love you need. We need tight connections; but they don’t have to be around all the time. I need you! - I don’t need you! “
For him, songs are a private refuge, where he can explore fleeting or transitory relationships. Like many “lady-killers”, he made women feel good about themselves, but he couldn’t give of himself.
Marianne, his most famous love affair on the Greek island Hydra, claims he was an elusive poet, married to his muse.
“You couldn’t really be with Leonard”. * Most poets would have been difficult to live with.
Dylan writes: “having all these relationships with women and not really committing . . . and having this long relationship to his career and yet feeling like it’s the last thing he wants to be doing.”
The songs have a lugubrious ambience - mournful, dismal, or gloomy, especially in an affected, exaggerated, or unrelieved manner: lugubrious songs of lost love. Some critics maintain “his is music to slit your wrists by”.
Cohen’s style comes from the 12^(th) C. troubadour tradition; learning about love, but instead of constancy, the recurring themes involve transitory relationships with separation and loss.
Hallelujah, in Post Modern style, exploits both classic or high brow and low brow cultural texts by adapting it into a more appealing marketable medium by using modern language, settings, technology and visual graphics. It is a culturally egalitarian post-modern and democratic song. Post modern allusions to modern, low-brow references include “the flag on the marble arch”, and the “lord of song” - ? Could this be Handel’s Messiah? The Beatles? The Marble Arch could be the white marble-faced triumphal arch in London, designed by John Nash in 1827 to be the state entrance to the cour d’honneur of Buckingham Palace; or one of many triumphal Marble arches built in Rome.
Andrew Ford and Anni Heino,¹ contend:
The lyrics of the first verse are about the power of music. They even describe it from a technical point of view.
‘‘It goes like this’’, the song explains, offering a real-time analysis of the chord structure: ‘‘the fourth, the fifth/The minor fall, the major lift’’. The song is in C major and as Cohen names the chords we hear them: ‘‘the fourth’’ (F major – chord IV), ‘the fifth’’ (G major – chord V), the minor fall (‘‘A minor’’), ‘‘the major lift’’ (F major).
Whether we really hear a lift with F major is a moot point. The word ‘‘lift’’ is there not so much for musicological reasons, but because it (almost) rhymes with ‘‘fifth’’. We’re meant to think of minor keys as dark and major keys as bright, whatever the evidence of our ears.
Bob Dylan claims Cohen’s:
“melodies, with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” The counterpoint lines give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. No one else comes close to this in modern music. Most songs are structured on two fundamental chords, has counterpoint lines that are essential. “That song ‘Hallelujah’ has resonance for me,it’s a beautifully constructed melody”.
Cohen claims he was influenced by the Chants of the Synagogue.
The power of language is explored in “there’s a blaze of light” in every word” whether taken in vain or not*. *Language can have some subliminal effect upon the listener, an almost hypnotic or haunting counterpart. We can be caught or mesmerized by the spell woven by the lulling descriptions, the direct colloquial narrative, the lilting rhythms, regular ‘rimes’, rich tapestry of images, symbols and the searing feelings of the narrator. Incantatory repetitions, alliteration and use of onomatopoeia can have a hypnotic, haunting effect on us. Many religions use these to cast a spell and suspend people’s reasoning processes. Poets are not immune from the same criticism.
Critics have for centuries debated the effect of repetitive sound patterns – predominantly, rhyme, assonance and alliteration – upon our standard cognitive mechanisms.
No firm conclusions have been reached but by consensus it is accepted that they interfere with our ability to make sense of language. They create a layer of echoes that runs as a counter-current to the conventional relationship between phonetics and semantics, sound and meaning.³
Les Carlyon appreciated the beauty power of words; how they can be made to dance and sing on a page. The two essential reasons for being a journalist are curiosity about the world and people and a love of writing. You have to get the words right. Choosing the right word at the right time is an elusive quality.
Love appears on the decline, perhaps due to a rival suitor, ( - or old age?) with the words: “*how to shoot at someone/Who outdrew you.” *And life turns bleak, cold and lonely. It’s not a cry you can hear at night/ It’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light/ It’s cold and it’s a broken, a broken Hallelujah
Has the persona suffered rejection? It’s not platonic or sacred love, rather a libertine, fleeting, profane and carnal desire being sought.
“I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch” appears despairing; that it has all the effervescence of mere physical exploitive indulgence. The melancholic tone evokes both celestial, futuristic escapism and plaintive grief, but the desperation of human resilience and an unstinting sense of frustration.
While transgressive sex is tantalising, the #MeTwo movement has stymied most coercive, power based or predatory sexual indiscretions. Most sexual acts are imaginary or fantasies that most of us would seldom put into practice. Yet most good sex begins with animalistic lust, morphing into emotional and physical intimacy and then transcending into spiritual ecstasy, as illustrated by: I remember when I moved in you?/ The holy dark (dove) she was moving too
Cohen’s final stanza ends on an ambiguous upbeat note: And even though it went all wrong/ I’ll stand right here* before the lord of song/ With nothing, nothing on/ my tongue but Hallelujah,*
Who is the lord of song? It is unlikely the Beatles as Cohen had this to say: *“songs like ‘Hey Jude’ I could appreciate. But they didn’t seem to be essential to the kind of nourishment that I craved.” * The most likely suspect would be Bob Dylan, while other contenders could be Janis Joplin or Joan Baez - Shakespeare?
He reaffirms life, despite its loss, with the final defiant with nothing but the refrain.
As all great literature, the song has enough ambiguity, nuance and enigma to appeal to our curiosity, without satiating us fully, compelling us to search for exponential meanings.
^(1\ )In A hidden Hallelujah - The Age - Spectrum – Nov. 30 – Dec 1 2019,
² **Malcolm Gladwell **https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsGD-_1gpTw&t=1988s
**^(3\ )A Definition of Poetry: the double pattern, Richard Bradford, Professor of English, University of Ulster.