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Director's Notes

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!

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