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Variations sur un Noel Op. 20
 Composed by Dupré, Marcel
 Work Notes
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Variations sur un Noël Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)

This set of variations on the popular French carol Noël Nouvelet date from Dupré’s ‘American’ period in the early 1920s; they were actually composed during the course of a concert tour, and Dupré later recalled that each variation was written in a different city, ranging from London to San Diego and all stops in between. He described this work as ‘a synthesis of the orchestral possibilities of the modern organ’, and it represents his response to his discovery in America of the benefits of organs with electric action and adjustable pistons, making it possible to change all the stops instantaneously - so different to the cumbersome mechanism of the old French organs. The variations embrace a kaleidoscopic variety of colours and textures, of a kind that had never been heard before, and cover an equally wide range of musical moods between the expressive opening harmonisation of the theme and the tempestuous finale. Variations sur un Noël enjoyed an instant success, and has deservedly remained one of the composer’s most popular works.

In six of the variations, the tune can be clearly heard, sometimes in one part, sometimes in canon between two parts, and once (in the 6th variation) in a double canon, with right hand, left hand and pedals all playing the tune in different keys. Alternating with these contrapuntal variations, there are free variations in which Dupré adopts the technique of a jazz musician, forgetting the tune itself, and just elaborating its basic harmonies in a variety of unexpected ways - a scampering flute solo in Variation 5, a dancing stream of crushed notes in Variation 7, and a ripple of chromatic thirds for clarinet in Variation 9. The last two variations are a fugue and toccata, culminating in a resounding peal of Christmas bells.

David Gammie

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