Monday, 22 December 2008


Did Leonard Cohen nick his basic idea from Eastern Orthodox liturgy? The trick of finishing each verse with an Alleluia is already there in a song by John of Damascus in the burial service; John Tavener set this hauntingly to music three years before Cohen wrote his own Hallelujah. It is likely simply to be a coincidence, but I’m very struck by it.

I sometimes use one of the alternative commending prayers in the new Church of England burial service which I assume comes from the Orthodox source:

All of us go down to the dust,
yet weeping at the grave,

we [still] make our [Easter] song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

The text of Tavener’s Funeral Ikos conveys the wonderful sense that, in the face of death, we cannot know all we would wish to sustain our faith other than depending on our ability to sing Alleluia, so some verses include:

Whither now go the souls?
This mystery have I desired to learn.
Do they call to mind their own people as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Where then is comeliness?
Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

With ecstasy are we inflamed
if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder.
Let us all, also, enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Much of Cohen's song is about different ecstasy, but it takes only a slight stretch of the imagination to think that at least his final verse belongs there:

Even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
with nothing on my tongue but
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

No comments: