Harmonia Early Music

The Noel: Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque

A Christian expression of joy, the word “noel” has been associated with Christmas for hundreds of years.

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candles inscribed with noel

Photo: Thomas Hawk

A Christian expression of joy, the word “noel” has been associated with Christmas for hundreds of years.

The Middle Ages

Today, the French word “Noël” literally means Christmas. There’s also a reference to Christ in its Latin root, “natalis,” meaning “birth.” But the association with Christmastide wasn’t always as synonymous as we understand it. If we look back to the Middle Ages, we discover that “noel,” or “noe,” was a Christian expression of joy either shouted or sung. It was used at Christmas and other Feasts.

In the 15th Century, its Christmas connection was already well-cemented. Vocal pieces from England and France survive that give us an idea of its use as a refrain which punctuated song verses.

Anonymous: “Nowell, Nowell: Tidings true”
The Folger Consort — A Medieval Christmas (Folger, 2008)
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The Renaissance

During the Renaissance, collections of Noels in a popular style sprang up in the first half of the 16th Century and remained fashionable throughout the latter half. They were printed by many publishers who helped to increase their popularity and influence.

On the liturgical side, many hymns were set to music with noel as a refrain, some taking melodies from secular chansons.

Anonymous: “A la venue de Noël” and “Marie en Bethléem s’en va”
Lucidarium — Le droict chemin (l'Empreinte digitale , 2001)
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The Baroque

The use of the word “noel” in the 17th Century followed the traditions that precede it. In a liturgical setting it was continually used as a refrain to hymns and other texts. And it sometimes took the place of “Alleluia.”

In 17th-century France, instrumental Noels were set to popular tunes of the folksong variety. With names such as “Une jeune pucelle” and “Joseph est bien marié,” the French Noel rose to even greater popularity. Instrumental versions for organ were also in great demand.

Composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote an instrumental Mass, entitled “Messe de Minuit,” which included some of the more popular songs associated with Noels. He interspersed sections of the Mass movements with Noels.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Kyrie eleison - Gloria in excelsis Deo
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie — In Nativitatem Domini Canticum – Messe de Minuit… pour Noël (Erato, 2001)
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New Release

Our new release of the week features violinist Petra Müllejans and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout in a program of sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Released on the Harmonia Mundi label, their performance is a recording debut.

Michel Corrette: A la venue de Noël
Michel Chapuis, organ — Nouveau Livre de Noëls (Astrée, 1988)
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Antoine Busnoys: “Noel, noel, noel”
Capella Alamire/Peter Urquhart — Motets by Busnoys, Josquin, and Gombert (Titanic, 1991)
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Anonymous: “Nowell sing we”
The Folger Consort — A Medieval Christmas (Folger, 2008)
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Anonymous: “Nowell, nowell: In Bethlem”
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers — Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Hyperion, 1987)
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Anonymous: “Nowell, Nowell: Tidings true”
The Folger Consort — A Medieval Christmas (Folger, 2008)
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Jacob Handl: “O magnum mysterium”
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers — Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Hyperion, 1987)
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Jean Mouton: Motet “Noe, noe”
Henry’s Eight — The Virgin and Christ-Child (Etcetera, 1997)
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Anonymous: “A la venue de Noël” and “Marie en Bethléem s’en va”
Lucidarium — Le droict chemin (l'Empreinte digitale , 2001)
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Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Kyrie eleison - Gloria in excelsis Deo
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie — In Nativitatem Domini Canticum – Messe de Minuit… pour Noël (Erato, 2001)
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Giacomo Carissimi: Motet “Immensus genitor”
Gilles Ragon and Bruno Boterf, tenors, with Ensemble — A Doi Tenori: Roman Church Duets from the 17th Century (l'Empreinte digitale , 2000)
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Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck: "Hodie Christus natus est"
Netherlands Chamber Choir/Various conductors — Choral Works, vol. 1 (Etcetera, 2007)
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W.A. Mozart: Sonata in C major, K.296, I.Allegro vivace
Petra Müllejans, violin, and Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano — Violin Sonatas (Harmonia Mundi , 2009)
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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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