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Hallelujah, Radio 4

All praise for the word that says it all, from Handel to Leonard Cohen

It was a full 10 minutes before Leonard Cohen made an appearance. And The X Factor winner Alexandra Burke wasn't mentioned once, even if she did have a Christmas No 1 with his song "Hallelujah". Hallelujah was a programme with somewhat higher aspirations. In fact it wasn't about the Cohen song – that documentary's been done – but about the word itself. A word sung with equal intensity by Jews, Christians and Muslims (and doubtless a few atheists and agnostics), a word that means "praise the Lord" and signifies joy and hope.

The composer Jocelyn Pook investigated, along the way writing her own piece based on the word. She went to the People's Christian Fellowship in Tottenham, north London, where they were rehearsing a gospel version of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. "It's warm, vibrant, energy boosting, life rendering," said one chorister of the word. "It means more than what you're trying to say." An interesting linguistic concept.

Pook spoke to Jeremy Schonfeld, a rabbinical teacher, who sang her one of the Psalms; she incorporated him into her lovely, plaintive piece. She also looked at the Messiah manuscript in Handel's house off Bond Street in London, the score becoming a scrawl as he neared the end.

He wrote Messiah in a frenzied three weeks, at the end of which he claimed to have seen the face of God. Cohen took years to write his four-minute wonder. He described having a coffee with Bob Dylan, one of its first champions. Cohen had written dozens of verses of "Hallelujah", selecting five for his final version. "I said it took me two years, but it took me longer," Cohen said. "Then I praised one of his songs I like, 'I and I' [another deeply spiritual song]. He said it took him 15 minutes." That must be galling.