Joyeux Noël: organ music for Christmas by French composers
St. Peter’s Church, Willis Street
Friday, 21 December, 7pm
Dianne Halliday gave her audience a wonderful conspectus of French organ music for Christmas, mainly. but not exclusively, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was a pity that the composers’ dates were not in the printed programme. However, I was able to find all except one, in a variety of sources, but chiefly Wikipedia.
The opening piece was ‘Chant du Roi René’ from Les Livres de Noëls by Alexandre Guilmant, who lived from 1837 to 1911. It was a lively, rhythmic piece based on traditional Noëls, featuring a full diapason choir, as a rousing opening to the recital.
In complete contrast were two Noëls by seventeenth century composer André Raison. Here, soft reeds contrasted with flutes in the first piece, with a tremulant at the end, while the second featured a medieval-style melody. Michel Corrette flourished from 1707 to 1795 – like all the other composers in the programme except one, he confirmed my observation that organists are a long-lived lot. His Première Suite de Noëls consisted of four movements. Among the four delightful pieces was ‘Une jeune pucelle’ (A young virgin), on flutes, and ‘Noël Provençale (tambourin)’, a polyphonic piece that introduced a stop that sounded like a Jew’s harp.
Clément Loret (Belgian-born, 1833-1909) followed; of his Six Noëls avec Variations Dianne Halliday played no.5, ‘Noël Arlesien’. This was a delightfully inventive piece. The title summed up what all the pieces on the programme were: variations on traditional Christmas songs and melodies. Most had simple folk melodies which were then varied to great effect, both in the writing, and in the registrations used by Dianne Halliday. Despite this and the range in dates of the composers, there was a certain sameness in the programme. This one had many variations, and a great variety of registrations. A simple melody was introduced sotto voce with the swell box closed, and then repeated with a 15th stop added at the top, then a louder rendition, then more flutes for the next, and yet more variations to follow, most without pedal parts. Last of all was a variation played in what is probably the upper reach of human hearing – a 2-foot rank?
The next composer, Nicolas Lebègue, lived from 1631 to 1702. Laissez paître vos bêtes (Leave grazing your animals) was based on the same melody as Bizet used for the Prelude in his first L’Arlesienne suite. The variations included a second on quiet reeds (Vox Humana?), followed by a third on full diapason chorus.
The name Charpentier is a well-known one in French composition circles, though I could find no evidence that Jean-Jacques Beauvarlet-Charpentier was the relative of the two famous composers of that name. His dates were 1734 to 1794. The two of his Douze Noëls played: no.5, ‘Noël pour une Elévation’ and ‘Noël dans le Gout [manner] de la Symphonie Concertante’ were charming variations on two traditional Christmas songs. The second melody was titled ‘Où s’en vont ces gais bergers?’; one could, perhaps, hear the shepherds’ clumsy movements in the abrasive reeds, and their pipes in the gentler flute tones.
Jean-François Dandrieu’s two pieces were enchanting; he flourished from 1682 to 1738. Following his music, we had Jean Bouvard’s Noël Vosgien. He was the only one of the featured composers for whom I could not find any information. The piece employed some rather different tonalities, and like the other pieces in the programme, was most appealing.
‘Noël cette Journée’ from Douze Noëls by Louis-Claude D’Aquin (1694-1772) is a piece that I did know, having a recording of it on an LP made by my late revered organ teacher, Maxwell Fernie. I have a memory of a hymn or carol in English on the Noël’s melody, but could not track it down in any of the relevant books I have.
André Fleury (1903-1995) was the composer of Variations sur un Noël Bourguignon. We heard one of the pieces: ‘Lo qu’en la saison qu’ai jaule’. An interesting reed stop opened the music, then the melody was heard on the pedals with quiet accompaniment. Louder variations followed in this extremely effective piece.
The penultimate piece was by the appropriately-named Ếmile Bourdon (1884-1974); a Noël by the 17th century Nicholas Saboly, ‘Lei
plus sage – Dòu vesinage’, [a Noël setting in the Langue d’Oc of the
south of France]. Finally, Quatre Noëls Op.26, by Charles Quef (1873-1931). The first, ‘Noël Lorraine’ was the most contemporary-sounding piece in the programme. It ended in a march. ‘Noël Mâconnais’ utilised a modal melody that introduced chunky variations. ‘Noël Breton’ was calm, with a positive mood, while ‘Noël Parisienne’ was a very bright and attractive piece, with a strong melody and a spirited finish.
What an amazing selection of Christmas organ music from France this was! Dianne Halliday revealed a rich tapestry of music we seldom hear. Nearly all had ‘Noël’ in the title. I had never heard of the majority of the composers. The playing was always beautifully articulated; registrations all had clarity and euphony; the organist exploiting the beauties of the organ to the full. The recital was quite long, and a tour de force for the performer, to use an appropriately French phrase.