Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas Carols Part II: The First Noel

One of our favorite, traditional English Christmas carols is The First Noel.  (Noel is an Early Modern English synonym for Christmas.)  There are many, many excellent recordings, but perhaps our favorite is that of Bing Crosby (1903-1977), which can be heard here:  (Oddly enough, this wonderfully evocative Christmas recording was cut on May 11th in that long-ago year of 1949.)

The carol tells of the Annunciation to the Shepherds and their adoration of the Christ child.  Oddly enough, the Star of Bethlehem does not appear in the Biblical books that also mention the adoration of the shepherds. 

The carol is Cornish in origin, and was first published in Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) and Gilbert and Sandys Carols (1833), edited by William Sandys.  The version you hear today is usually the four-part hymn arrangement by the English composer John Stainer (1840-1901), published in Carols, New and Old, which appeared in 1871. 

The First Noel has a fairly unusual melody in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a refrain which is a variation of that phrase.  All three phrases end on the third of the scale.

The first Nowell the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter's night that was so deep:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
Born is the King of Israel.

They looked up and saw a star,
Shining in the east, beyond them far:
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night:

And by the light of that same star,
Three Wise Men came from country far;
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star whersoever it went:

This star drew nigh to the north-west;
O'er Bethlehem it took its rest;
And there it did both stop and stay
Right over the place where Jesus lay:

Then entered in those Wise Men three,
Full reverently upon their knee,
And offered there in his presence,
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense:
Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood mankind hath bought.

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