**Leonard Cohen **became a renown Canadian and international folk singer in the 1960’s, characterised by the melancholic sensuality of ephemeral love. His most famous works included, Suzanne, So Long Marianne and Bird on a Wire.
Cohen began composing Hallelujah in 1979, and finally recorded it in 1984 to mixed reviews destined to obscurity. It then it took another 15 years to become accepted as a work of genius.
Today it is regularly used in film scores, official commemorations and many other totally inappropriate ceremonies.
How fragile and elusive success is. Where does conceptual artwork come from? Ultimately it 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’’).
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
Malcolm Gladwell explores the creative process in art, literature and music. ²
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.
Shrek version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebtqoKHyHzk
Lyrics, as sung by Cohen at his London concert in 2009.
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. *
* its 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*
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 you *
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 on 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 you
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
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, through to its waning. Each of its varied stanzas is followed by what can be considered orgasmic Hallelujahs, some triumphant, yet many wistfully nostalgic – perhaps even frustrated as his passing loves seem to shrivel and fade to mere lust.
Early on, it’s King David, when his imperative sexual urge, with its wild and aggressive lust for gratification, overpowers ogling the married Bathsheba bathing. After he has dispensed with her husband by putting 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?
Appropriation: Hallelujah 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?
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.
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 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.
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? 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
**^(3\ )A Definition of Poetry: the double pattern, Richard Bradford, Professor of English, University of Ulster