One of the intriguing aspects of Baroque music for me is the many intersections between vernacular traditions and the music of the court and church. The French Noel is a good example. The word Noel was used as a cry of joy, especially at Christmas, but the term also refers to a popular song with tunes joining sacred texts with secular music and dance. These songs were very popular in France throughout the Renaissance and Baroque. In his music dictionary of 1767, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated, “the airs of Noels should have a rustic and pastoral character suited to the simplicity of the words, and to the simplicity of the shepherds who are supposed to have sung them while going to pay homage to the Baby Jesus in the manger.”
In the 17th and 18th century, French composers created instrumental variations on these Noel tunes. We can assume that performers often improvised on them as well. Part of the appeal was how familiar the folk tunes were to the public; hearing them improvised and varied in ingenious ways must have been great fun for both the performer and listener. Some of the finest ornamented variations can be found in the French Baroque organ literature. With the help of BCOC violist and arranger Alex Vittal, I’ve assembled a trio sonata/suite of six Noels that draw on some of the organ variations as well as an anonymous collection from 1725 and other sources.
By the way, it’s true that my last name Nowell is the English version of the French word Noel… which may partially explain why I’m drawn to this little corner of Baroque music!
The suite will conclude our December 3 chamber concert that will also feature music by Bach Handel, and Telemann, as I’m joined by my BCOC colleagues Jubal Fulks and Brune Macary (violins), Linda Lunbeck (recorder), and Sandy Miller (cello). Handel will be represented with two trio sonatas, and Bach by two selections from the Well Tempered Clavier and solo violin Partita in E major. The Prelude from the Partita is one of those pieces by Bach that I equate with pure musical joy! It’s been arranged in many different ways for different instruments, but it’s always wonderful to hear it in its simple original form – for unaccompanied violin.