"Hallelujah", in its original version, is in 12
8 time, which evokes both early rock and roll and gospel music. Written in the key of C major, the chord progression matches lyrics from the song: "goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift": C, F, G, A minor, F.
Cohen wrote around 80 draft verses for "Hallelujah", with one writing session at the Royalton Hotel in New York where he was reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the floor. His original version, as recorded on his Various Positions album, contains several biblical references, most notably evoking the stories of Samson and treacherous Delilah from the Book of Judges ("she cut your hair") as well as King David and Bathsheba ("you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you").
Following his original 1984 studio-album version, Cohen performed the original song on his world tour in 1985, but live performances during his 1988 and 1993 tours almost invariably contained a quite different set of lyrics, with only the last verse being common to the two versions. Numerous singers mix lyrics from both versions, and occasionally make direct lyric changes; for example, in place of Cohen's "holy dove", Canadian-American singer Rufus Wainwright substituted "holy dark", while Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe sang "holy ghost".
Cohen's lyrical poetry and his view that "many different hallelujahs exist" is reflected in wide-ranging covers with very different intents or tones, allowing the song to be "melancholic, fragile, uplifting [or] joyous" depending on the performer: The Welsh singer-songwriter John Cale, the first person to record a cover version of the song (in 1991), promoted a message of "soberness and sincerity" in contrast to Cohen's dispassionate tone; the cover by Jeff Buckley, an American singer-songwriter, is more sorrowful and was described by Buckley as "a hallelujah to the orgasm"; Crowe interpreted the song as a "very sexual" composition that discussed relationships; Wainwright offered a "purifying and almost liturgical" interpretation; and Guy Garvey of the British band Elbow made the hallelujah a "stately creature" and incorporated his religious interpretation of the song into his band's recordings.
Canadian singer k.d. lang said in an interview shortly after Cohen's death that she considered the song to be about "the struggle between having human desire and searching for spiritual wisdom. It's being caught between those two places." Former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page, who sang the song at Canadian politician Jack Layton's funeral, described the song as being "about disappointing people".
Since 1991, "Hallelujah" has been performed by a wide variety of singers: over 300, and in various languages. Statistics from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Canadian Recording Industry Association, the Australian Recording Industry Association, and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, show that, by late 2008, more than five million copies of the song sold in CD format. It has been the subject of a BBC Radio documentary and been in the soundtracks of numerous films and television programs. Different interpretations of the song may include different verses, out of the over 80 verses Cohen originally wrote.
In an April 2009 CBC Radio interview, Cohen said he found the number of covers of his song "ironic and amusing", given that his record label refused to release it when he first wrote it; however, he then claimed the song could benefit from a break in exposure:
I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it and the reviewer said – "Can we please have a moratorium on 'Hallelujah' in movies and television shows?" And I kind of feel the same way...I think it's a good song, but I think too many people sing it.
Conversely, in early 2012, while promoting his then-current album, Old Ideas, Cohen stated he wasn't tired of the song being covered:
There's been a couple of times when other people have said can we have a moratorium please on "Hallelujah"? Must we have it at the end of every single drama and every single Idol? And once or twice I've felt maybe I should lend my voice to silencing it but on second thought no, I'm very happy that it's being sung.
John Cale's cover first appeared on I'm Your Fan (1991), a Leonard Cohen tribute album, and later on his live album Fragments of a Rainy Season (1992). Cale's version has vocals, piano, and different lyrics that Cohen had only performed live such as "I used to live alone before I knew you" and "All I ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you". Cale had watched Cohen perform the song and asked Cohen to send him the lyrics. Cohen then faxed Cale fifteen pages of lyrics. Cale claims that he "went through and just picked out the cheeky verses."
Cale's version forms the basis of most subsequent performances, including Cohen's performances during his 2008–09 world tour. It was the version used in the film Shrek (2001), although it is Rufus Wainwright's version that is used on the soundtrack album. It also appears on the first soundtrack album for the TV series Scrubs and as the ending song of the Cold Case episode "Death Penalty, Final Appeal".
Jeff Buckley, inspired by Cale's earlier cover, recorded one of the most acclaimed versions of "Hallelujah" for his only complete album, Grace, in 1994. It was posthumously released as a single in 2007, as Buckley died 10 years prior.Critical reception
In 2004, Buckley's version was ranked number 259 on Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The same year Time called Buckley's version "exquisitely sung," observing "Cohen murmured the original like a dirge, but ... Buckley treated the ... song like a tiny capsule of humanity, using his voice to careen between glory and sadness, beauty and pain... It's one of the great songs."
In September 2007, a poll of fifty songwriters conducted by the magazine Q listed "Hallelujah" among the all-time "Top 10 Greatest Tracks" with John Legend calling Buckley's version "as near perfect as you can get. The lyrics to 'Hallelujah' are just incredible and the melody's gorgeous and then there's Jeff's interpretation of it. It's one of the most beautiful pieces of recorded music I've ever heard." In July 2009, the Buckley track was ranked number three on the 2009 Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time, a listener poll held every decade by the Australian radio station Triple J."
On April 2, 2014, it was announced that Buckley's version of the song will be inducted into the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry.Commercial performance
Buckley's version was not an instant hit, nor did Buckley live to see the full measure of the reception his recording would ultimately have; he died in 1997. The album on which it appeared did not go Gold in the U.S. until 2002, nine years after its release. In fact, like Cohen's original, the Buckley version was not released as a single, until much later, and it didn't chart until 2006, posthumously for Buckley. In March of that year, Buckley had his first national top 10 best-seller when "Hallelujah" was at number seven in Norway. In 2007, it made the top 3 on the Swedish charts. In March 2008, it topped Billboard's Hot Digital Songs in the U.S. after a performance of the song by Jason Castro in the seventh season of American Idol. The sudden resurgence of interest provided both Gold and Platinum status, the RIAA certifying the digital track on 22 April 2008. It has sold 1,144,000 digital copies in the US as of May 2010. It also hit number one in France in March 2008.Usage in media
The Buckley version has been widely used in film and television dramas, including the series The West Wing, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace, The O.C., House, Dirt, Criminal Minds, ER, Third Watch, Ugly Betty, LAX, NCIS, and Justiça and the films Feast of Love, The Edukators, Vinterkyss and Lord of War. "Hallelujah can be joyous or bittersweet, depending on what part of it you use", Time quoted Buckley's publisher as saying, and the magazine opined that its liberal use in some cases was "a tacit admission that neither the writers nor the actors could convey their characters' emotions as well as Buckley."
On April 20, 2013, Buckley's version of the song was played at Fenway Park during a tribute honoring the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing before the Red Sox played their first home game following the tragedy.
Canadian-American musician and singer Rufus Wainwright had briefly met Jeff Buckley and recorded a tribute to him after his 1997 death. That song, "Memphis Skyline", referenced Buckley's version of "Hallelujah", which Wainwright would later record, though using piano and a similar arrangement to Cale's. Wainwright's version is included on the album Shrek: Music from the Original Motion Picture, although it was Cale's version that was used in the film itself. The Shrek soundtrack, containing Wainwright's cover, was certified 2× Platinum in the United States in 2003 as selling over two million copies.
Rufus Wainwright, his sister Martha Wainwright, and Joan Wasser performed the song in the film Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man.Charts
In 2004, k.d. lang recorded a version of "Hallelujah" on her album Hymns of the 49th Parallel. She has since sung it at several major events, such as at the Canadian Juno Awards of 2005, where it "brought the audience to its feet for a two-minute ovation." Lang also sang it at the 2006 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame when Cohen was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Cohen's partner, singer Anjani Thomas, said: "After hearing k.d. lang perform that song at the Canadian Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 2006 we looked at each other and said, 'well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It's really been done to its ultimate blissful state of perfection'." Lang sang it at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, before a claimed TV audience of three billion.
In 2006, the Norwegian quartet of Espen Lind, Kurt Nilsen, Alejandro Fuentes and Askil Holm released a cover of the song. After debuting at number 8 on the Norwegian VG-lista, the single reached number one in January 2007. The song remained listed on the Norwegian top 20 for 37 (non-consecutive) weeks between 2006 and 2007.
The song also appears on the 2006 album Hallelujah Live, credited to Espen Lind with Kurt Nilsen, Alejandro Fuentes and Askil Holm, which also reached the top of the Norwegian VG-lista.Charts
Alexandra Burke, the winner of the fifth series of the reality television show The X Factor, released a condensed cover version of the song as a prize for her victory. It reached Christmas number one on the UK Singles Chart on 21 December 2008.Background
The release of Burke's cover created interest in the previous versions of the song, including a Buckley fan campaign to take Buckley's cover to the top of the Christmas chart and therefore deny Burke the top spot. The campaign was fuelled by Buckley fans' dislike of The X Factor's commercialism and the song's arrangement, as well as their desire to introduce younger people to Buckley's version. Burke herself was not enamoured of the choice of song, remarking "It just didn't do anything for me."Commercial performance
Burke's version broke a European sales record after selling over 105,000 digital downloads in just one day, breaking the previous record set by Leona Lewis. The song sold 576,000 copies in its first week, becoming the fastest-selling single released by a woman in the United Kingdom and the 2008 Christmas number one, while Buckley's cover charted at number two and Cohen's original version at number 36.
On 28 December 2008, the UK Singles Chart listed Burke's version as the biggest-selling single of the year, with NME announcing sales of over one million copies since its release. It has sold 1.297 million as of August 2016, making it the biggest-selling X Factor winner's single to date.Charts
The a cappella group Pentatonix covered the song in the quintet's 2016 album, A Pentatonix Christmas. On October 21, 2016, Pentatonix also released a music video for its cover.
Bob Dylan was among the first to perform Cohen's song in concert with his earliest noted performance being in Montreal on 8 July 1988. Other notable singers who have covered "Hallelujah" include Brandi Carlile, Regina Spektor, Willie Nelson, Susan Boyle, Tim Minchin, Alter Bridge, (Myles Kennedy), and Bono. Bono's version, which is mostly spoken, was included in Tower of Song, an all-star tribute to Cohen in 1995. Bon Jovi has covered the song several times in concert, including on their 2008 Live at Madison Square Garden DVD.
International group Il Divo released a Spanish-language adaptation with different lyrics on their album The Promise (2008), which topped the charts in the UK. The song was performed by recording artist Damien Rice at the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions when Cohen was inducted. That same year Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins recorded a classical-crossover version for her album Sacred Arias. Kate Voegele performed it in character as Mia Catalano in the U.S. teen drama One Tree Hill. Also appearing on an album, her version made the Hot 100 Billboard charts and reached number 53 in the UK shortly after airing of the episode there. Also in 2008, the Welsh band Brigyn released a version in Welsh. The following year, Yasmin Levy's album, Sentir, included a Ladino cover.
The song has become a staple of television talent shows. Jason Castro, an American Idol season 7 contestant, performed a version on 4 March 2008, which propelled Jeff Buckley's version of the song to the top of the Billboard digital song chart. His version was included in his self-titled debut album and his second studio album, Who I Am. Lisa Hordijk, winner of the 2009 Dutch X Factor, released "Hallelujah" as her debut single, which went double platinum and remained at the top of the Dutch charts for ten weeks. The song was also covered by Brian Melo during the final performance round of the fifth season of Canadian Idol in 2007; Melo would go on to win the title. Season 6 South African Idol's-winner Elvis Blue performed the song twice during his stint on the show. His version was also featured on his self-titled debut album.
A 2009 hit by Orthodox Jewish singer Ohad Moskowitz, "Bo'i Kala", featuring the words of the traditional tune accompanying a Jewish bride to the chuppah, is a musical adaptation of "Hallelujah".
On 16 April 2010, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Richard Eaton Singers conducted by Jack Everly premiered a new arrangement for orchestra and chorus by Claude Lapalme. Also in 2010, the Maccabeats of Yeshiva University released Voices from the Heights, with an a cappella version with the words of the Jewish liturgy "Lecha Dodi".
Steven Page performed the song live at the state funeral of Canadian Opposition Leader Jack Layton on 27 August 2011. The Swiss pop rock singer Bastian Baker released a cover in 2012, which charted in Switzerland and France.
In May 2012, Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented the World Premiere of The Doorway – Scenes from Leonard Cohen, created and choreographed by Jorden Morris – with "Hallelujah" performed by Allison Crowe (voice and piano) and ballerinas Sophia Lee and Jo-Ann Gudilin dancing alternate dates."
On the third season of the American version of The Voice, contestant Nicole Nelson sang "Hallelujah" in the "Blind Audition" stages, and all four coaches selected Nelson for their team. Later in the season, the show recorded a shortened version in honor of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. All four coaches — Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, CeeLo Green and Christina Aguilera — performed, with hosts Carson Daly and Christina Milian along with the show contestants singing background vocals. Each person in the ensemble held up a card that displayed the name and age of one of the people lost in the tragedy.
American entertainer Adam Sandler performed an off-color parody of "Hallelujah" in December 2012 at Madison Square Garden in New York City as part of 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief. Sandler's version contained numerous references to Hurricane Sandy and contemporary events in local culture, sports and politics.
On 31 May 2015, a 167-piece operatic choir, Côr Glanaethwy, sang a rendition in Welsh in the final of Britain's Got Talent (series 9). They came third in the competition.
Singer Tori Kelly performed the song during the "In Memoriam" portion of the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards. She also performed her version in the film Sing.
On 12 November 2016, an episode of Saturday Night Live opened with cast member Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton performing a rendition of the song in tribute to both Cohen and Clinton; the preceding week had seen both Cohen's death and Clinton's unexpected loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Multiple orchestral and instrumental versions of the song have also been performed. The Vitamin String Quartet included a rendition on their album The Indie Wedding String Collection. Violinist Lindsey Stirling also recorded an arrangement of the song in accordance with the A Savior is Born campaign, created by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Stirling uploaded a video of her performing the piece in a New York City Subway station to her YouTube channel. During her performance in the subway station, though, not one person stopped to listen to her play.
Other artists to cover the song include Marcy Playground, Allison Crowe, Straight No Chaser, Elvis Blue, G.E.M., Tori Kelly for the animated film Sing, Veronica Rotin, Peter Hollens, Axel Rudi Pell, Celtic Thunder, Kathryn Williams, Imogen Heap, Draco Rosa, Neil Diamond, Pain of Salvation, Ulf Lundell, Kevin Max, Popa Chubby, Davy Knowles, Theory of a Deadman and The Osmonds. Rea Garvey sang it on the soundtrack to the German romantic comedy Barfuss.The BBC commemorated the 25th anniversary of the first recording with an hour-long radio documentary, The Fourth, The Fifth, The Minor Fall, in which the song's history and numerous cover versions were presented and discussed.
It was named one of the top ten greatest tracks of all time in a poll of songwriters conducted by the British music magazine Q.
It was listed as one of the 500 greatest songs by Rolling Stone magazine.
In the February 2009 issue of Blender, "Hallelujah" was named that month's "Greatest Song Ever" (a monthly feature).
In 2005, "Hallelujah" was named the tenth-greatest Canadian song of all time in Chart magazine's annual readers' poll.
On 21 December 2008, "Hallelujah" became the first song in 51 years to be numbers one and 2 on the UK Singles Chart; The X Factor winner Alexandra Burke's and American singer Jeff Buckley's covers were the two highest-selling songs in the week beginning 15 December 2008. Leonard Cohen's version was number 36 in the same chart.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks took the title of her 2015 novel about King David, The Secret Chord from this song.