Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah: the meaning of the lyrics

Leonard Cohen was one of the greatest songwriters (even if in this case the term is an understatement) that last century gave us.

Born in Canada to a Jewish family in the 1930s, he then moved to Hydra, where in the first half of the 1960s he wrote and published several novels and collections of poetry. A simple but deep voice, classical guitar arpeggios and above them stories of platonic and non-platonic love (Suzanne), goodbyes (So Long Marianne, Hey that’s no way to say goodbye), tales of a claustrophobic world on the verge of an apocalypse (Stories of Streets) and damned souls in search of redemption.

This is how Leonard Cohen made his way in the world of music at the age of 33: it was 1967 and the album was called Songs of Leonard Cohen.

Before Various Positions, other records followed: Songs from a room, Songs of love and hate, Recent songs, all full of sin and redemption, sex and holiness.

Although Various Positions had true milestones in the Canadian singer-songwriter’s discography, the producers were quite skeptical, that’s why it was released later in USA. But Cohen, as he revealed in an interview, took his little revenge thanks to one of the songs belonging to that album: Hallelujah.

Initially the album, and consequently the song, didn’t get much attention. Then, exactly 10 years after the release of Various Positions, a young Jeff Buckley covered this song. From that moment onwards, Hallelujah‘s success grew more and more: there are more than 200 covers, including famous artists such as Bob Dylan, Bono Vox and John Cale, who played the song even before Jeff Buckley.

It took five years for Cohen to write his most famous song. He declared that he spent the nights filling the notebook pages, desperate because he wasn’t able to finish it. He wrote about 70-80 stanzas.

So far there are two “official” versions, one recorded for Various Positions and another one, with different lyrics, recorded live in 1988 and then inserted in Cohen live in 1994.

In the lyrics there is first of all the sex-religion dualism, two topics often present in many other songs of the Canadian. The lyrics start with David, king of Israel, who, by playing the harp, can calm the evil soul of Saul, his predecessor.

“The baffled king composing hallelujah.” David is always the protagonist of this phrase and his perplexity comes from the fact that, despite being chosen by the Lord, he could not help but follow his own human nature. In fact, he became the lover of Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, committing adultery.

The following verses always continue through religious metaphors, but the meaning remains unclear. There are those who see the end of a love story in these metaphors and those who think it’s a praise for music.

Regarding the meaning of the song, Leonard Cohen said:

“This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’.

The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”

So no love, no eros or praise for music, but a huge hug to every situation that life offers us.

Many of us ask ourselves what the meaning of Hallelujah is, but probably every thesis is wrong and right at the same time, since music is subjective and everyone can attribute different meanings to it.

Now, 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 you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

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 a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

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