Friday, December 25, 2009

Shopping for a Christmas descant

“The First Nowell,” as various sources helpfully note, was first published in 1823, although the words are believed to date to 1600 or even the 13th century. The melody first appeared with these words in 1833, but is also thought to date from centuries earlier. The arrangement we all know is that of Sir John Stainer published in 1871.

The term Nowell is Old English for the French Noël (which means birth, i.e. the birth of Christ). It's a greeting used for the Christmas feast, as recounted in the Franklin’s Tale (ca. 1395), one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. (Some call the carol “The First Noël,” but I agree with those who say that if you’re going to say “Noël” then you should say “Le premier Noël.”)

My challenge this Christmas season was to find a descant for our choir to sing with “The First Nowell.” More precisely, I was looking for a descant for one (or two) of our younger sopranos to sing — each with beautiful voices but not a lot of experience singing descants. (As I recall from my choirboy days, one of the joys of being a soprano is that you almost always get to sing the melody.)

Finding the right descant proved a lot harder than it looked -- both in terms of what is free on the Internet and also in terms of the lack of consensus. This despite (or perhaps) because this is a very popular carol for descants. As one website snipes:
"The First Noel" is one of the most popular of all Christmas carols, known well to schoolchildren and to choral music arrangers who try to outdo each other in maximizing the registral sweep of the refrain by piling on lines of descant harmony.
First, I checked my hymnals (Anglican and otherwise) to see which ones had it:
  • Had it: Hymnal 1940, Hymnal 1982, Songs of Praise Enlarged Edition (1931), New English Hymnal (1986). I also found it in the 1975 Baptist Hymnal of the Southern Baptist Convention.
  • Didn’t have it: The English Hymnal (1906) — perhaps why it was in Songs of Praise. It’s also missing from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and Lutheran Worship (1982): it is because the German-American LCMS types didn’t share a common culture with pre-Reformation England, or was it some other reason?
Then I went in search of descants. Using Google, Wikipedia and other sources, I found at least 5 descants (some just a descant, some involving complete re-harmonization). I don’t have date of composition, but the chronological order of birth for the descant composers is
  1. Healy Willan, 1880-1968, Anglo-Canadian, arguably the most famous 20th century Anglican choral composer after Ralph Vaughan Williams.
  2. Evelyn Sharpe, (ca. 1895-???), who is best known for the "The Bird with the Yellow Bill" and "The hum of the bees".
  3. (Sir) David Willcocks, 1919-, English.
  4. (Sir) Philip Ledger, 1937-, English.
  5. Paul Halley, 1952- , Anglo-American choirmaster of St. John's (PECUSA) cathedral in NYC from 1977-1989.

1. Willan

The Willan was the easiest to find — Hymnal 1982 has the Willan descant for the refrain only. Although I saw one reference suggesting it was first published in 1926, I couldn’t find the original or any evidence of a descant for the full carol.

2. Sharpe

I had even more trouble finding music for the other descants. My best luck was with Evelyn Sharpe — a task made more difficult due to considerable confusion between Sharpe and two contemporaries named Evelyn Sharp (one an English librettist, one a World War II pilot.) Miss Sharpe’s descant was published in 1944 as #27 in Cramer’s Descant Series. (What a wonderful idea that a publisher published a series of scores to capture descants.) However, as far as I can tell, it’s not held in the Library of Congress, and so I couldn’t figure out a way for an American to get a copy. This the one descant that I never heard.

3. Willcocks

I found a ECUSA church in Lexington, Kentucky that used a Willcocks harmonization for its 2007 Festival of Lessons and Carols — both for The First Nowell and three other Christmas carols. The Willcocks arrangement of the entire carol is on YouTube in a 2008 performance by the King’s College Cambridge. The descant is a little hard to hear over the blaring organ, but it’s quite pretty; however, it might require a professional choir (like those from the English choir schools) to pull it off.

4. Ledger

I found the Ledger harmonization in my CD collection. My favorite Christmas collection is an all-star English choirboy compilation entitled “Christmas Carols From Wells & Salisbury.” However, my reaction to the Ledger harmony was almost the same as that to Rococo architecture — too ornate and dated.

5. Halley

The final version I found was that by the (now-American) Paul Halley. Given when it was composed, I was wary at best, and one of the YouTube performances made it clear that this was not the descant for me or our choir.

6th Descant

If you listen to contemporary (pop-ish) performances of “The First Nowell,” there is another descant they are using that’s none of the above. Listening to one of my CDs, I plinked this transcription out at the keyboard:
This is certainly the descant I’ve heard many times before. It’s always possible that this is the Sharpe descant I never found.

Upon further investigation, the descant line in the first phrase is just transposing up the tenor part written by Stainer — making it the oldest of the descants. Kenny Rogers also sang this line on a 1990 CD among my collection of 35 Christmas CDs.

I don’t know where the last two descant measures came from, but it has a voice leading worthy of 16th century counterpoint and ends on the root of the D major chord.

In short, this descant is very easy to sing and thus the one we ended up using. Certainly I’d use it again, unless there was some particular reason we wanted to use the Willan (which was almost as easy to sing, but not quite as dramatic.)


Northland Al said...

The Willcocks arrangement is in Carols for Choir 1,

One advantage of this one is the organ actually doubles the descant (save for the next to last measure). I have used it for the last verse even when we did not have a choir to sing the descant (such as the later Sundays of Christmas and/or Epiphany).

9.West said...


Thanks for posting this link ( One of the gratifying things about the blog is getting comments from readers who know more than I do.

Organ doubling would not have been an issue for us, because we barely had an organist (since our regular organist was gone). However, we can completely relate to your point about having something singable without a choir.

However, when you say "used it for the last verse" you mean as an organ variation, not because you expect someone to sing along?


D Schram said...

I enjoyed reading through your descant search so much that I posted a link to it on my own blog.
I also linked to it on twitter.