The fifth Christmas post on this site (the other four are linked at the bottom of the page) presents one of the more haunting and mysterious of traditional Christmas songs, known in France before the time of Columbus as "Noël Nouvelet" (meaning something akin to "new Christmas" or perhaps more at "the coming Christmas") and in England more than a century later as "Sing We Here Noël," a literal translation of the French chorus "Noël chantons ici." Some sources suggest that since the root of the French "Noël" is the same as "nouvelle" (new) from which "nouvelet" is derived that the original song must have been a New Year's carol (see last year's "Gloucerstershire Wassail Song" for more on carols) - but I think not. First, the oldest lyrics extant in French include 13 short verses that relate every element of the Christmas story as we know it today - Mary and Joseph, the stable, angels and shepherds, and - this is important - the Three Kings. In pre-modern times, oral tradition was the only way that the illiterate masses of people throughout the world could learn of their histories and their mythologies and their religions. In medieval Christianity, it was both songs and plays that were the primary vehicles for religious instruction; virtually nobody except the clergy and some of the nobility could read at all, and it would not have done the common folk much good even if they could have because the Bible existed only in Latin, a language that nobody spoke and only the educated could understand. "Noël Nouvelet" was said originally to have been taught to children, which fits in with the idea of its educative value. The other element of this composition that makes me suspect the New Year's theory is the sound of the song itself. It is written in a minor key - in the Dorian mode, it seems, where two of the notes of our modern normal "do-re-mi" scale are dropped a half step to give it a minor coloring. And songs written in minor keys have a haunting or melancholy tone to them, hardly what anyone's ancestors would have used to wassail in a new year, even the often contrarian French.
That brings us back to "les Trois Roys" or Three Kings of the original medieval French lyric. Yes, we all know that the gospel account in Matthew identifies them as "magi," the plural of "magus," which requires a bit of a stretch to become "wise men." Magus is the root of the word "magic," and these gentlemen would probably be more properly identified as astrologers (the Star, right?), who though scholarly were students of the mysterious and arcane. They become "kings" in the middle ages through the conflation of a biblical prophecy that the monarchs of the world would bow before the messiah with the actual story in Matthew about the magi bowing down before the infant in worship. So by the 1400s our wizards have transformed themselves into royalty, bearing we all remember gifts of gold for kingship, frankincense for divinity - and myrrh for death, that last being a jarring and discordant oddity unless you remember that in Christianity the very purpose of the Incarnation, of the believers' God becoming human, was to die a sacrificial death as atonement for humanity's sins. As folk/dulcimer legend John Jacob Niles wrote in his often-performed Christmas composition, also hauntingly minor-keyed:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
Thus the undertone of a kind of sorrow even in this, the most joyous of religious festivals - and the reason that the minor key of "Noël Nouvelet"/"Sing We Here Noël" is entirely fitting.
The lyrics are charmingly simple, as would befit a song designed to teach little children the Nativity story.
Noël nouvelet, Noël chantons ici,
Dévotes gens, crions à Dieu merci !
(The coming Christmas, we sing it here!
Devout people, cry your thanks to God!)
Chantons Noël pour le Roi nouvelet !
Noël nouvelet, Noël chantons ici !
(Sing we Noël for the new King -
The coming Christmas, we sing it here!)
After verses about the cow and the ass and the manger and so on, we get the Star and our royal visitors:
Bientôt, les trois Rois, par l'étoile éclaircis,
A Bethléem vinrent une matinée.
(Soon, the three Kings, by the bright star
To Bethlehem came one morning.)
L'un portait l'or et l'autre myrrhe aussi
Et l'autre encens que faisait bon senty
Le Paradis semblait, le jardinet
(One brought gold, and another myrhh
And another priceless incense;
The stable thus seemed like Heaven, or the Garden.)
There are several interesting versions of the medieval French carol out there. This first is from Anúna, an Irish franchise-type a capella group that changes some of its twelve to fourteen members regularly while retaining founder Michael McGlynn's arrangements:
While this "Celtic Woman" style of singing can become cloying or annoying (take your pick) in large doses, it seems to work just fine for a single song like this.
Loreena McKennitt is a Canadian/Celtic singer whose videos I have included in earlier posts. She has an original approach to many of her traditional efforts, including here with "Noël Nouvelet":
The instrumental arrangement is clearly inflected with Eastern music rhythms and percussion. It works somehow, and there was a strong Arabic influence on Europe in the middle ages anyway, so McKennitt isn't committing an act of musical heresy.
The Kingston Trio references that as well in its arrangement of "Sing We Here Noel!":
The instrumental intro is Dave Guard playing a bouzouki, an instrument that we associate today largely with Greek music, though its origin was in Turkey or further east, making this arrangement complementary to McKennitt's. The Trio takes the tune a bit more uptempo than you usually hear it, but that works as well: the mournful undertone of the minor key is just that, an undertone. The song is still joyful and celebratory.
The Atlanta Adventist Academy Ringers handbell choir performs the tune with similar pace and verve:
I love handbells and I love good high school musical groups, so this video is a double delight for me.
Summarizing it all is this unidentified children's choir doing an uptempo Celtic/rock/Arabic rendition:
The melody of "Noël Nouvelet" was also used for a more modern English Easter hymn titled "Now The Green Blade Rises," but Easter is another matter altogether. Let me use this lovely French carol to keep us all squarely in a Christmas state of mind, and allow me to wish you all "Joyeux Noël!"
*The first four songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes included #1 - "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; #2 - "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"; #3 - When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year, and #4 - "Gloucestershire Wassail Song". Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy" , "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".