(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 22.)
The scene is a food court in a busy shopping mall. It’s lunchtime and the food court is crowded.
You can see that it’s the Christmas shopping season. As a video camera pans around the mall a woman in a Santa Claus hat is playing Jingle Bells on a clunky old piano.
The camera then settles on an attractive young woman who rises to her feet from one of the dining tables. She appears to be talking on a cellphone.
The ringing notes of an organ are heard and suddenly the young woman bursts into song. “Hallelujah!” she sings. It’s the instantly familiar opening of Handel’s famous chorus from The Messiah. Her powerful soprano rings out through the mall, stopping the lunchtime diners mid-mouthful.
“Hallelujah!” a tall young man roars back in a deep, rich bass from the other side of the food court.
Within moments, others have risen to their feet and joined in the singing – dozens of them, scattered all around the food court. Some stand on tables and chairs. Shoppers look on in delight and astonishment. Children are wide-eyed with wonder.
The Hallelujah Chorus lasts nearly five minutes and it is performed with great gusto and élan. When the singing has finished, shoppers applaud and cheer. Then everyone goes back to their lunch and normalcy returns.
It’s a marvellous example of the modern phenomenon known as a flash mob, in which a large group of people assemble suddenly in a public place, perform some sort of unusual act, then melt away as quickly as they appeared.
In this case the venue was the Welland Seaway Mall in Ontario, Canada. The singers were from a local community choir – an extremely good one, I might add – and the mall management were in on the secret in advance.
Eight weeks of planning and rehearsal reportedly went into the event, which was captured by seven video cameras strategically positioned around the food court. The footage, which was skilfully filmed and edited, was put on the video sharing website YouTube and quickly went viral, as they say. (If you enter the words “Christmas Food Court Hallelujah” into Google, you should find it straight away.)
The choir staged its flash mob on November 13 and when I last looked at the video three days ago, it had been seen more than 22 million times. However that doesn’t mean that more than 22 million people have seen it, as many people would have watched it more than once.
I certainly did, and quickly overcame the natural journalistic scepticism that made me wonder whether it was some sort of commercial stunt. I noted that there was no conductor in evidence, for instance, which might have made things difficult for an amateur choir used to being led by one. But I could see no sign that it was a hoax, and in any case, what would be the point?
I’ve viewed the video three or four times now (I’ve sent it to several other people too) and it’s impossible to watch without feeling emotional.
What makes it so moving? Several things. First, and obviously, it’s the power of the music itself. The Hallelujah Chorus is said to have so moved King George II the first time he heard it that he rose to his feet in admiration, thus giving birth to a tradition followed by audiences to this day.
But there’s more to it than that. There’s the obvious joy of the singers too; they are smiling and their eyes are glowing. And then there are the expressions on the faces of the onlookers: some puzzled, but most beaming with pleasure. Many record the experience on their cellphones, as if to prove to themselves later that it wasn’t all a figment of their imagination.
Now here’s my point. There is something about the Hallelujah Chorus that is irresistibly uplifting. You cannot hear it without feeling inspired.
Where does this come from? What Muse propelled Handel to write a piece of music so stirring that it still enthrals people nearly three centuries later?
I’m not what you’d call a deeply religious person, but it seems to me that great works of art such as The Messiah are a powerful argument that some sort of divine force is at work. I feel the same about scenery so magnificent that it leaves you groping for words. Such phenomena surely don’t happen by accident or random circumstance, or arise out of a vacuum.
It’s not just the power to create profound music that suggests some sort of divine inspiration. The gift of creating music, such as Handel possessed, is something given to very few, yet nearly all of us have the capacity to appreciate such music and be moved by it. Where does that powerful emotional response come from? It seems arrogant to assume that it has come about through an almost mechanistic process of evolution. There must surely be some deeper explanation.
There is a rarely used word that can be applied here. The word is numinous, which can broadly be defined as awe-inspiring, profoundly spiritual or characterised by the sense of a deity’s presence. It’s a word that describes some things that are beyond human understanding.
There is something numinous about spiritual music like The Messiah, although these days we hear very little Christmas music that could be so described. The songs that bombard us on the radio and in department stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas are almost wholly secular, as are most of the Christmas cards on sale.
Yet many people do get at least a vague sense of the numinous at this time of year, if at no other. That’s why Christmas church attendances are far higher than at any other time. More than any other Christian festival, Christmas seems to resonate with people who otherwise have little place for religion in their lives.
One thing is certain: I get a strong sense of numinous forces at work when I watch that YouTube video. Check it out and see for yourself.