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The meaning behind "fa la la" in madrigals

Hello all!   I have been searching for the answer to the question, "What is the meaning of the fa la la?"  I seem to remember someone telling me that it was covering up "naughty" words?! Is that accurate?  looking specifically at Fyre Fyre by Morely.
thank you!
Replies (21): Threaded | Chronological
on October 2, 2013 2:54am
Don't think so.  I think fa la la means nothing more than 'fa la la'!   Though 'The nymphs are fa-la-la-ing' (All creatures now) or 'Shall we play barley break? fa-la-la' (Now is the month of maying)  might suggest otherwise!  I think it means whatever you want it to mean - or nothing at all!
on October 2, 2013 7:43am
Hello Clair, madrigals with fa,la, la were known as balletts or a balletto.  They were homophonic songs with dance like rhythms.  The words were meaningless used to add musical interest or variety and extend the composition.  They date back to the late Rennaisance.  Morley and Weelkes were two of the best known composers of such pieces.
C. Musser
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on October 2, 2013 9:18am
Hi Claire. Gordon is right. Here in Italy, if you hear, for instance, someone singing as they walks, probably you'll hear they sing "la la la la....". It is the standard "italian scat". In the case of the past music, it was "fa la la la....", with the "fa" on any opening note. Summing up: no meaning and no covering at all.
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on October 2, 2013 12:11pm
Whatever meaning/non-meaning one might ascribe, songs with "fa,la,la" and suchlike are excellent opportunities to teach singers to relax the jaw and use only the tip of the tongue to pronounce the syllables.  I use "Deck the Halls" regularly, even when it is not in season, to teach this concept.
Fabio, I think your "Italian scat" is a delightfully apt explanation.
on October 7, 2013 1:46pm
The undertones and subtexts are important to the history of the madrigal. On the surface, the texts may seem to simply deal with romantic ideas, but given the practice of the time (in poetry and literature) of using imagery in service of a second, more sexual implication (since writing OPENLY about sex was not preferable), it's easy to see how these pieces, which were often (usually?) 'performed' by men for their own enjoyment, can be read in such a way. And considering the dancelike character of many "fa la la"s that accompany the open-to-interpretation poetry, reading them as suggestive interludes seems appropriate.
In "Fyer, fyer," the imagery revolves around the "fire" within. I think that "Will none come quench me? O cast water on, alas, and drench me" pretty clearly alludes to the possible erotic subtext. 
(Also worth noting is that Morley based this piece on a villanelle by Marenzio, "A la strada," which deals with being wounded and the great pain of being struck in the heart.)
on October 8, 2013 8:08am
Speaking of Madrigals and Weelks, I'm doing "Strike it Up Tabor" by Weelks with my choir. Any insight on this particular piece? It obviously has some of the double meanings going on that you all are discussing... Would love to hear your thoughts! -Whitney Lee
on March 30, 2014 4:09pm
We are also rehearsing "Strike it up tabor" in our choir, here in São Paulo, Brazil, and as at this point you must be very familiar with the lyrics I would like to ask you a question about some of the verses. When the lyricist writes that the Morris were half undone, does he mean that they were not ready, half of them had their buttons undone or does he mean that they were almost finished, tired of dancing? One more question: does stitching mean clothes? I'm looking forward to hearing  your suggestions. Thanks.  
on March 30, 2014 8:39pm
Morris is a dance...a type of English folk the Morris half undone means the dance wasn't finished. Morris dancing sometimes included props such as swords and the dancers moved in patterns. The month of May was very popular for Morris dancing and was often part of other festivals, such as the Mummers. I could go on and on with dance history but you get the idea.
on March 31, 2014 3:40am
'Morris' can also refer to a Morris-dance troupe.
A 'stitch' is a loop of yarn as used in sewing or knitting, and obviously clothes are made of pieces of cloth joined together using stitches. It's true that 'stitch' can be used to mean 'clothing' in phrases like 'he hadn't a stitch on' or 'every stitch he was wearing', but I'm not aware of 'stitching' being used in the same way. On the face of it, the reference is to the money paid to someone to do the stitching of the clothes, i.e. actually making them from the pieces of cloth already cut, or repairing them. It could alternatively refer to the adding of ornamental embroidery to the clothes.
on March 31, 2014 2:49am
I'm not sure of the meaning of 'undone', but 'were' could be subjunctive in this clause, so that 'The Morris were half undone were't not for Martin of Compton' could mean 'The Morris troupe would have been half undone if it were not for Martin of Compton'.
on March 31, 2014 6:39am
I sang in a professional madrigal group as part of the Renaissance festival when it toured here.  We did "Strike It Up, Tabor".   I've not researched it, but I always thought the "the Morris were half undone 'twere not for Martin of Compton ...'Oh, well,' said jigging Al'ce" meant, "We [dancers] were messing up the Morris pattern, because we were too inexperienced/tired/distracted/inebriated/you-name-it to get it right.  Martin of Compton pulled us together!  But Alice was really "out of it" -  she forgot which dance , or gave up saving the Morris, started dancing the jig and said,"oh well!"
This type of scene, and the habit of stopping, acting silly and saying "oh, WELL', to sort of dismiss the stress, is quite common in contemporary scenes and I find the similarity quite charming.
Interestingly, we had a group of Morris dancers there as well.  I recognized one of them as having been an alto in my high school choir and madrigal group where we had both learned many madrigals.  And she definitely functioned as our smart and  funny Alice! (As Scott says, 'Who's in your choir?'  Or was...? ) Someone  I hadn't seen for years..delightful memories !
on October 8, 2013 8:16am
I submit, and I read it somewhere in my studies, that the fa la la section was the composer's method of painting a scenario, a scene, a thougt, an action.  These sections did not occur because the composer ran out of words before the music ended!  Supporting this is the evidence that we also walk around singing nonsense syllables to music such as da da da da or dow dow or whatever.  Composers of the renaissance also enjoyed watching/hearing another composer change their notes and/or words.  This area could have given space for lyric changes perhaps.  If the fa la la la section was to allow for sexual implications, then the text for Deck the halls carries an extremely new meaning.  No.  It is, I suspect, as stated: a first attempt at musical painting. 
on November 18, 2013 4:20pm
Take a look at the origin of "Deck the Halls," a very old Welsh carol called "Nos Galan." Here's the English translation:
Oh! how soft my fair one's bosom,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la:
Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la:
Oh! how blessed are the blisses,
Words of love, and mutual kisses,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la:
I would argue that this imagery is quite ripe with subtext. The "deck the halls..." lyrics weren't written until the mid-1800s, far later than the origins of "fa la la."
And speaking more generally and not to anyone in particular, I don't think there's any reason for us to feel uncomfortable about the idea of these pieces of music having certain undertones. It reflects a very important aspect of the attitudes of Renaissance society.
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on November 20, 2013 10:31am
Dear Phillip, while I understand your point, nevertheless, my point remains unchanged: ...~~ the fa la la section was the composer's method of painting a scenario, a scene, a thougt, an action.  These sections did not occur because the composer ran out of words before the music ended!  Supporting this is the evidence that we also walk around singing nonsense syllables to music such as da da da da or dow dow or whatever.  Composers of the renaissance also enjoyed watching/hearing another composer change their notes and/or words.  This area could have given space for lyric changes perhaps.  Even the people of the 1800s seemed to understand this, if not in whole, then in part.  Fa la la, chum!
on November 20, 2013 2:56pm
when writing program notes, I found a source that said about Deck the Hall:
"The music for this carol dates back as early as the 16th century in Wales.  It may have been from the canu penillion tradition in which, dancers would dance in a ring around a harpist. Originally, the dancers would sing the verses and the harpist would play the 'answering bars' (Fa la la la la la, etc.), but these nonsense syllables were substituted when harpers began to disappear.  The current English text baers little resemblance to the translation of the original Welsh words"
Which would explain the fa la la in Deck the Hall as a replacement for instrumental music.
on October 8, 2013 9:40am
I can't remember if I read this or dreamt it up but I've always held that there is a link between the fa la la la's and instrumental ritornello practice in early Baroque music.  The late 16th century saw the rise in concerted (instruments and voices together) music in Northern Italy.  Take a look at the 1610 Vespers and you'll find instances of alternation between singers and instruments quite frequently.  This technique, the juxtaposition of vocal and instrumental forces, can be found in Italian music as early as the 1570s.  Although we don't have a wealth of specific evidence in the way of writen music, we know that in secular music it was common for instruments and voices to play together.  
In essence, the fa la la mimics the alternatim between singers and instruments that you'd find in popular music and (increasingly after 1570 in Northern Italy) sacred music. A hybrid between the polyphonic secular song model from Italy, and the Renaissance wind band dance(entertainment) music tradition.
I tell my students to imagine that they are suddenly a band of crumhorns, sacbutts, recorders, or shawms during those ritornellos.  Ok, not shawms.
on November 20, 2013 2:58pm
That would make sense with the quote about "Deck the Hall" that I left in the response above.  I think it likely that nonsense syllables come fairly naturally and have been used for different reasons by different composers at different times.
on November 19, 2013 4:30am
I have taught students to approach "fa la la" texts as if they are notations of laughter.  Whether this is academically accurate, I don't know for sure.  The placement of them in madrigals suggests this to me.
Keeps the face lifted, adds engagement to the rest of the group and audience, and makes the piece more relevant   to the singers in general.  
Hope this helps.
on November 19, 2013 4:41am
Sometimes a "fa la la" is just a "fa la la."
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on November 20, 2013 4:48am
This isn't a particularly scholarly musical approach, but....
"What you see, depends upon where you stand."  I use a similar phrase when asked some thorny political (historical) question when I do first-person historical interpretations, "Your perspective, (sir/madam), depends upon where you stand."  If you want to "see" sex or not, it'll depend upon where you stand....
on March 31, 2014 6:52am
I like to think of "fa la la" as the Renaissance equivalent of Seinfeld's "yada yada yada."  Whatever that means.
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