The Complete Carol
The Complete Hymn

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Perhaps this is a dangerous area to venture into! We all know and love carols, but do we get the best out of them? Taking a few examples:

O little town of Bethlehem... (tune: FOREST GREEN DCM)

This tune is structured AABA* i.e. the melody of the first two and fourth lines are almost the same, although the harmonies differ. So what do you do for your playover? A will typically suffice but there needs to be a clear indication that you are not simply moving on through the melody, so when A is repeated, are your singers meant to start singing or are you continuing the playover? How long your playover should be will depend on whether there is a carol leaflet, a service leaflet, a screen with words on, or a hymnbook. I suggest the following:

Singing from:

Use Notes

Carol booklet
Service leaflet

A from last line
A begins as line 1, ends as line 4
A begins as line 1, ends as line 4
A from last line

So you have a lot to think about already without looking at the amount of space before each  verse.  I would normally expect to play the last two chords before the final one staccato. You could do this if you drop the second tenor quaver; otherwise play it as written below. This is the shorter play-over (A). For the longer one (BA) play from you hymnbook using the same join as I have done below.

* The italic A indicates that the line is identifiably similar though not precisely so; this occurs quite often.

I am used to joining things up and my congregation are used to it too, so I hold the last chord for 2 beats rest for just 1 beat then I go straight in, no pause, no rit. and certainly no rallentando. I do the same between the verses. Don't take this carol too fast and all will be well.

Hark! The herald angels sing

The first point to observe is that this hymn is too high for most congregations; so I play it in F.
The tune is so well known that the final part leads comfortably into the start. Do NOT pause or rallentando anywhere except on the last line of the last verse!

Joy to the world

This delightful uplifting carol is relatively straightforward and my playover uses a well known bit of Handel! You can shorten if you wish. There is a very slight risk of singers starting subsequent verses at the top of the semi-quaver run in the bridge.
Experience has taught me that the shorter play-over works best and the bridge could be risky. Dropping the four bars and re-starting directly from the last note of the verse has been found to be fine.

The First Nowell

Below is the melodic analysis that I do for all hymns and songs that I have worked on. It defines the melodic phrasing which helps me to construct my playover. If the melody is repeated identically I use the same letter. If it is different I work my way through the alphabet; if a phrase is very similar but slightly varied I use italics e.g. C below on the last phrase, which is not quite the same as the phrases C above it.

You really don't need me to help you play this well-known carol! BUT what do you play to introduce it? And how do you join the verses bearing in mind the quick pick-up in the melody?

Notice the sections of melody above, just four parts with C in the last phrase only slightly different from the two sections C above. If you play over any part of this with a view to stopping just before an A your congregation will not be sure that you are about to continue your playover or want them to sing, unless you add something, conventionally a pause. I therefore play over using just the refrain; this is distinguished by the D section running into C. I might shorten the last note to a crotchet/quarter note with a silence of the same value then start the verse a tempo. That just leaves the question how to move from verse to verse. Bearing in mind this is 3:4 the pace could, and often does, get progressively slower so you must guard against that. Between verses I therefore hold the last chord for four beats followed by one beat rest then start the next verse strictly a tempo. I tend to have moving chords under the four beats which helps to sustain that tempo. It is vital that you do not pause or slow down in that area.


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October 2023