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  • Before the Marvel of This Night


    Before the marvel of this night
    Adoring, fold your wings and bow,
    Then tear the sky apart with light
    And with your news the world endow.
    Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace,
    That fear and death and sorrow cease:
    Sing peace, sing peace, sing gift of peace,
    Sing peace, sing gift of peace!
                      —Jaroslav J. Vajda

    I'm a bit of a news junkie—I admit it. I watch more than my weekly minimum daily requirement. What that may mean for my being an informed citizen is probably compensated for (in a not so good way) by viewing too much that is troubling. From the political wrangling that seems to dominate our national conversation, to acts of violence that can only be described as evil, the world sometimes seems to be spinning out of control.

    It's against that backdrop that Jaroslav Vayda's poem becomes all the more poignant. Look at those last two lines: Sing peace, sing peace, sing gift of peace, Sing peace, sing gift of peace! He isn't content to simply ask us to "Sing peace." He insistently repeats the line five times! And along the way, listen to how those words unfold, with their softly sibilant ess sounds. The very sounds themselves seem to be a whisper of peace.

    I sometimes tell the Chorale that we ought to look at the texts we sing as poetry first, before we think of it as a text set to music. Somehow when we do that, the words regain the shimmering glow that the poet meant them to have. So, in Vajda's poem, pause and feel the wonder in these words:

                                              tear the sky apart

    I dare say that in everyday speech, you rarely use any of these words! And that's the point, isn't it? These words are reserved for this moment, to help us ponder the amazing things we are witnessing: the things that make up the marvel of this night! All of this wonder in the text is matched by the beautiful musical setting of composer Carl Schalk. Always calm (delaying anything louder than mezzo forte until the very end), Schalk's melody rises and falls with a contour that wonderfully complements the text. The music joins the text as we're invited in to this wide-eyed wonder at what God has done on this marvelous night in Bethlehem.

    Perhaps my favorite phrase in this text comes in the second stanza. Still speaking to the angelic host, the poet says:

    Awake the sleeping world with song,
    This is the day the Lord has made.
    Assemble here, celestial throng,
    In royal splendor come arrayed.
    Give earth a glimpse of heavenly bliss,
    A teasing taste of what they miss:
    Sing bliss, sing bliss, sing endless bliss,
    Sing bliss, sing endless bliss!

    There it is (see the bolded text)! Don't we weary people need a glimpse of heavenly bliss? Even the smallest "teasing taste" of this glory of God would be enough to make us want nothing but that!

    Here is a performance of Before the Marvel of This Night by the GEWC from our 2012 Christmas concert. For more information on WINTERSONG 2017: Christmas with the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale, and to order tickets, click on the link on this page.

  • How Many Halls Are We Decking?

    In my last blog, I wrote a bit about the beautiful carol See Amid the Winter's Snow. It is just one of several pieces that the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale is preparing to sing at our upcoming Wintersong concerts. This time I want to venture into one of our more "sprightly" and undoubtedly well-known selections.

    I'm willing to bet that nearly every one of us grew up singing Deck the Hall. Ah, but already I must digress! I also would venture to say that most of us sang as though we were decking several halls, not just one! A small point, but an interesting one: the original title of this song did indeed have us festooning a single hall. It wasn't until perhaps the late 1800s that someone decided that decking out one hall just wouldn't be enough. And so, most of us now sing: Deck the Halls.

    This venerable carol of Christmas is a classic illustration of the hardiness of tunes and lyrics, morphing over time, but somehow surviving decade after decade of use. The familiar tune for this carol dates to the 16th century, and is Welsh in origin (by the way, give the Welsh their due for writing some amazing tunes! Just look through the index of a hymnal some time, and stop on some of those strange-looking tune names like CWM RHONDDA). The English lyrics don't actually appear until 1862, written by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant. The poetic lines are punctuated by those famous fa la la's which remind us of a Renaissance madrigal.

    Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
    Fa la la la la la la la la.
    'Tis the season to be jolly,
    Fa la la la la la la la la.
    Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel,
    Fa la la la la la la la la.
    Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,
    Fa la la la la la la la la.

    Hold on a second! What's a troll? Something to do with the Internet? No, can't be that—not in the 1800s. It turns out that back then it meant to sing loudly, or celebrate in song. Aha! So, we're going to gather around and sing a . . . wait a minute, what's Yuletide? Simply put (and there is much more history than this), it's another word for the season of Christmas. It looks like what that quaint line means is simply that we're going to enjoy some good old-fashioned singing of Christmas carols.

    Before I say a brief word about the arrangement that the Chorale will sing at our concerts, there is one more interesting tidbit. It turns out that Haydn (yep! Papa Haydn!) actually liked this old Welsh tune enough to write a little version of it for solo voice. Who knew?

    At our Wintersong concerts, the Chorale will sing John Rutter's arrangement of Deck the Hall, which he wrote for the recently formed Cambridge Singers in the 1980s. Plenty of those tasty fa la la's, and a rather striking key change to boot!

    Next time . . . a look at a rhythmically energetic arrangement of O Come O Come Emmanuel.

    Wintersong 2017: Christmas with the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale is Friday, December 1 and Saturday, December 2 at College Church in Wheaton, IL. Ticket information is available on this page. We hope you'll be there!

  • It's the Most... BEAUTIFUL Time of the Year!

    We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows,
    even that is bounty enough.
    We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united
    with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves,
    to bathe in it, to become part of it.

    — C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory

    This may seem at first like a strange quote with which to begin a blog about Christmas music! But as I sit thinking about some of the beautiful music being prepared by the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale for Wintersong, I think it may be rather relevant after all.

    Christmas has long been my favorite season of the year. One of the reasons for this, I think, is the great beauty it brings. Think of it—what could be more beautiful than God stooping to become one of us? Here is a Love that is beyond understanding—a Love that has moved artists and musicians through the years to create some of the most beautiful works imaginable. From Handel's Messiah to Bach's Magnificat, artists have found in the Incarnation inspiration to create works that literally soar to the heights.

    As the Chorale prepares for our Wintersong 2018 concerts, we're anticipating sharing the joy of this music with you! In this post I'd like to share just two of the pieces on our concert that have made it to the top of my "Beautiful Music" list.

    First, there is Ecce Novum, by Ola Gjeilo. The framework for this piece is really quite simple: it moves through several keys, but the harmonies remain basic. And so, it is a bit difficult to describe just why this piece is so moving. The Latin text paints the picture of Jesus' birth, and perhaps it is the simplicity of the music matching the bare simplicity of a birth in a manger that moves us. Gjeilo has given the piano the role of a straightforward accompaniment, and the strings whispering above it are marvelous.

    The second piece I want to mention here is All Praise to Thee by Elaine Hagenberg. The Chorale is singing two of Hagenberg's pieces on these concerts, and this will be the first time that the music of this young composer has been sung by the Chorale. Once again, this piece is not complex, but has melodies and harmonies that are easily accessible. It too brings together the piano and strings for a striking and beautiful accompaniment. The text is by Martin Luther:

    All praise to Thee, eternal God,
    Who, clothed in garb of flesh and blood,
    Dost take a manger for Thy throne,
    While worlds on worlds are Thine alone.

    And then, what I think is one of the most beautiful features of this piece, a refrain that recurs throughout, consisting of a single, beautiful word: Alleluia. This Alleluia is first sung quietly, but gains intensity, and in the final moments of the piece, is sung with rapturous joy!

    I am looking forward to sharing this beauty with you! And these are just two of many more pieces that I think you will find bring you great joy this Christmas season.

    In addition to the full Chorale, Wintersong 2018 features the Ensemble, directed by Mac Willaert (who also serves as the Chorale's accompanist), the College Church pipe organ played by Daniel Mattix, and our wonderful string ensemble. In addition, saxophonist Howard Whitaker will join the Chorale for two selections. I certainly hope you'll put the dates on your calendar and order your tickets by visiting our Tickets page. I think you'll find Wintersong to be a wonderful way to begin your Christmas season!

    Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale
    Wintersong 2018
    Friday, November 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, December 1 at 3:00 p.m.
    College Church in Wheaton

  • Spotless Rose

    As we continue to look at some of the pieces in the Chorale's upcoming Christmas concerts, our Ensemble director and accompanist Mac Willaert talks about one of his favorites—Spotless Rose by Ola Gjeilo.

    My mother had a red rose bloom on Christmas Day when I was a teenager. Exciting for her. Beautiful for the rest of the family.

    In the midst of my second year with the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale, it seemed fitting that I make my big "Director's Notes" debut! We'll give Mr. Greg Wheatley a week off as we take a look at one of the Ensemble's pieces for the season, a gorgeous a capella choral piece titled Spotless Rose.

    When I first took the position of director of the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale Ensemble, one of my very first tasks was to begin assembling the Ensemble's program for Wintersong 2016.It took me no time at all to make my first selection; I have always been thoroughly moved by Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, perhaps my favorite traditional Christmas carol, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to bring an arrangement to life with my new group of talented singers. In fact, we even used it as their audition piece for the Ensemble! Needless to say, we crafted and tuned that piece over the course of months until it was prepared as a truly beautiful moment in the midst of a spectacular concert.

    For this season, I wanted to branch out and perhaps include some arrangements and pieces I was wholly unfamiliar with. I stumbled upon Spotless Rose,written by Ola Gjeilo. Having been familiar with Gjeilo's work and highly admiring it, I gave it a listen and was immediately certain that we must take a stab at it. The piece was in Norwegian, Gjeilo's native language, but came with English language text as well, so there was no hesitation to lock in this brand-new, exciting piece, certainly unlike anything we'd done before with the Ensemble. Then, of course, I took a look at the translated text to see what the core of the piece was all about:

    A Spotless Rose is growing, sprung from a tender root,

    Of ancient seers' foreshowing, of Jesse promised fruit;

    Its fairest bud unfolds to light amid the cold, cold winter

    And in the dark midnight.

    The Rose which I am singing, whereof Isaiah said,

    Is from its sweet root springing in Mary, purest Maid;

    Through God's great love and might, the Blessed Babe she bare us

    In a cold, cold winter's night.

    Those of you familiar with Lo, How a Rose E'er Bloomingare permitted a chuckle at my expense; in my quest to find something new, daring, and drastically different, I had stumbled on a different arrangement of what is essentially the same, classic text from Lo, How a Rose. A cruel twist of fate indeed. But, alas, one does not look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when the gift horse is presenting such a beautiful piece of choral music. The tune and the setting will be wholly unfamiliar, even to those who love the classic carol as much as myself, but I suppose we will simply have to make it an annual tradition to incorporate it in one form or another! I do hope our singers and our audience enjoy the richness in this expressive, moving setting of a truly classic Christmas text.

    We are very excited to be bringing Wintersong 2017: Christmas with the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale to College Church in Wheaton, IL on Friday, December 1 and Saturday, December 2. Ticket information is available on this page, and we look forward to bringing you a concert of Christmas cheer!

  • Wintersong 2017: A Few of My Favorites

    Anyone who knows me knows that Christmas has always held a very special place in my heart. This Festival of the Incarnation has no equal! As the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale prepares for our Wintersong 2017 Christmas concerts, I thought it might be fun to give you a look at a few of the pieces we'll be singing on December 1 and 2. In all, the Chorale will sing just over a dozen pieces of music. So, in the coming weeks, "watch this space" as I talk briefly about several of them.

    See Amid the Winter's Snow

    I'll start with a longtime favorite. To the best of my recollection, I first heard (or at least took note of) this wonderful piece in the early 1980s, when I found it on a vinyl record of Christmas carols. I recall being drawn to it as a particularly beautiful setting of a wonderful Christmas text by English hymn writer Edward Caswall:

    See amid the winter's snow,
    Born for us on earth below;
    See the tender Lamb appears,
    Promised from eternal years.

    I think one of the things that captivates me about this text is the way it places the birth of Jesus, the Lamb promised from eternal years, amidst the wonder of a winter's snow. Somehow the imagery of the pure white snow helps us see the purity of the innocent Lamb, born in Bethlehem—the fulfillment of the promise long foreseen by the prophets.

    Then there's the grand refrain:

    Hail! Thou ever blessed morn!
    Hail! Redemption's happy dawn!
    Sing through all Jerusalem:
    "Christ is born in Bethlehem."

    At Wintersong 2017, the Chorale will sing this carol in an arrangement by Dan Forrest. Dan is a relative newcomer to the choral world, but he has burst on the scene with some wonderfully captivating pieces! Perhaps the most striking feature of his arrangement of See Amid the Winter's Snow is his use of a recurring Alleluia. Inserted between stanzas and their own refrains, Dan writes a soaring four or five measures with the single word Alleluia—a word of apt praise in response to the news the choir is singing!

    Add to all of this a flowing accompaniment for piano and strings, and you have what I'm quite certain will prove to be a highlight of Wintersong!

    Next time we'll take a look at an upbeat selection: John Rutter's rollicking treatment of Deck the Hall.

    Don't forget: it's not too early to mark your calendar for Wintersong 2017: Christmas with the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale. There will be two performances—Friday, December 1 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, December 2 at 3:00. Both performances will be at College Church in Wheaton. More information is available here on the Chorale's website.