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Hallelujah and Leonard Cohen’s ‘secret chord’


I hadn’t been to a correct cinema in years, even within the pre-pandemic “earlier than occasions”. However the different day I made my approach to see the brand new documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Music.

I really like Leonard Cohen as a songwriter. A Canadian born into an Orthodox Jewish household in 1934, he was a novelist and poet earlier than turning to singing and songwriting. His lyrics usually pulled on points of his religion custom, whereas additionally suggesting a deep and layered understanding of the complexity of life. He sang of affection, of religion, of being misplaced, of looking out, of the trials of his folks, of sexuality and relationships, and primarily of attempting to reside via this world in all its tragedy and triumph.

Of all his songs, his most well-known is maybe “Hallelujah”, a monitor on his seventh album, Varied Positions, launched in 1984. The album didn’t come out within the US on the time as a result of it was rejected by the then head of Columbia Data. So the music remained obscure, although Bob Dylan sang it reside every so often, till John Cale recorded a model in 1991. Cale rearranged the music from the 15 verses Cohen shared with him.

The documentary tells of “Hallelujah”’s evolution, highlighting the way it moved from obscurity to a type of casual communal possession. Numerous artists from Jeff Buckley, who immortalised it, to Willie Nelson, Brandi Carlile and even opera singer Andrea Bocelli, have recorded a model of the music, shape-shifting its lyrics and verses to go well with their very own preparations.

When know-how made it doable, I made a particular playlist on my cellphone that’s simply 12 totally different artists singing a model of it. Fifty-six straight minutes of “Hallelujah”s. Seeing the documentary made me surprise once more: what’s it about this music that has an infinite attraction to audiences, and has moved musicians via the many years to maintain it alive and thriving for nearly 40 years? And why, even now, does it at all times really feel related and well timed?

The phrase itself, Hallelujah, composed of the 2 Hebrew phrases, hallel (reward) and yah (an abbreviated type of Yahweh, God), actually means to reward God. However the lyrics and the tone of the music appear to sway between hymn and dirge, two musical kinds that might function responses to nearly every thing that occurs in our lives: songs that remember and acknowledge the blessings and provisions of our lives, and songs that bemoan our losses, our heartbreaks, and our deaths. Within the movie, Cohen calls the phrase “wealthy and ample”, and says folks have been “singing it for 1000’s of years to affirm our little journey”.

Of all the varied preparations which have been recorded, and the liberties taken, the opening traces stay the identical in each model: “(Now), I’ve heard there was a secret chord/That David performed, and it happy the Lord/However you don’t actually look after music do you?/It goes like this . . . /The minor fall, the main elevate/The baffled king composing ‘Hallelujah’.”

The story Cohen is alluding to is that of the tenth century BC King David, recognized within the Hebrew scriptures for each his deep religion to his God and his deep private failings. Of all the various creative portrayals of King David, “King David Enjoying the Harp” (1622), by the Dutch Golden Age painter Gerard van Honthorst, appears to me to depict some seen component of each the ache and the hope I understand in Cohen’s music.

‘King David Enjoying the Harp’ (1622) by Gerard van Honthorst

The picture is of a king not essentially younger, however nonetheless in his prime. His arms on the harp look sturdy, as in the event that they’ve recognized some labour — David was a shepherd and spent a very long time within the wilderness on the run from the crazed King Saul earlier than he himself turned king. His neck is thick and muscular however there are a couple of creeping traces on his rosy-cheeked face. The richness of his clothes and his crown present he’s safe in his success and is somebody of energy.

Even with out figuring out the longer narrative of David’s life written within the Hebrew scriptures, we might nonetheless assume that along with his age, he’s prone to have recognized each victories and failures, triumphs and grief. David’s life, like most of our personal, was crammed with gentle and darkness, an oscillation between our earnest and trustworthy makes an attempt to reside with integrity, compassion and beneficiant unselfish love, and our slips or actions that don’t affirm flourishing life and love for ourselves or others.

Within the portray, maybe looking out as soon as once more for that “secret chord”, David performs what was probably a lyre, an instrument usually related in historical occasions with the gods, as was music itself. David was a gifted musician from his youth, and whereas he was a shepherd he used the lyre to assist calm and appease the troubled King Saul. Now a king himself, David nonetheless performs the lyre, symbolic of his pure boyhood reward, his connection and devotion to what he considers holy, and his capacity to appease.

His gaze is turned upward to the heavens, a glance on his face evoking some cross between humility, doubt and hopeful anticipation. His expression is a strong distinction to his sturdy stature and to his wealthy and heavy cloak. No matter his energy and accomplishments, he’s nonetheless only a man who could make errors, and stays on the mercy of forces past him, his God. And but, regardless of the dissonance of David’s life, his narrative continues to be one written and skim as composed of an ongoing relationship of affection and adoration with the one he knew as God.

Granted, not everybody esteems a relationship to God, to a specific religion, and even to any sense of the non secular life. And there’s no one cadence to the human journey. However the music strikes on the collective human eager for perception in and connection to one thing or somebody past ourselves. A relationship (be it with a deity or fellow human) that’s unquestionable, reliable, dependable and forgiving, regardless of our missteps.

The opening traces of Cohen’s music are each so haunting and so inviting as a result of they counsel that perhaps there’s some secret components on the market that may present a door to that sort of connection, that sort of unconditional acceptance of who we’re. It’s additionally a young and passionate music about the way in which wherein love, intimacy and connection ebb and move between folks. How we are able to suppose we all know somebody, and imagine we ourselves are recognized, and even that we all know ourselves, just for the vagaries of time and life to upend or change that have. We are able to shock even ourselves.

A part of the timelessness of this music is that our lives will at all times be filled with damaged hallelujahs, praises interrupted by alternative, likelihood and circumstance. However I additionally imagine that on the finish of the day, regardless of how the journey has been, we too, like Cohen, lengthy and hope to have the ability to nonetheless discover sufficient of the journey worthy of that never-ending refrain.

enuma.okoro@ft.com; @enumaokoro

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