I’m a choral scholar at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin, and the organ voluntary that initiated our Christmas Eve service this year was Louis-Claude Daquin’s Noël X Grand Jeu et Duo. This piece is so playful that it was hard to resist indulging a huge grin when I first heard it in the chapel, and I realize now that it is equally difficult to find a suitable recording on YouTube. Its multidimensionality does not translate well into a flat recording — it is best experienced in the cavernous, sacred space of the chapel. In other words, I am disappointed that you couldn’t be with us that night to hear Eric Mellenbruch, our organist and Director of Music, give a masterful performance of the piece. But I’ll attempt to describe some of its most engaging conversational features.
Daquin published his set of tunes on French Christmas carol arrangements, Nouveau livre de noëls, in November 1757 while serving as an organist at the Cathédrale Notre Dame in Paris. His tenth arrangement, the Grand Jeu et Duo, is a trope on the tune ‘Quand Jésus naquit à Noël’ (‘When Jesus was born at Christmas’). As Eric related to me in an email,
In the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the organists of the great Parisian churches, including Daquin, Dandrieu, and Balbastre, supposedly packed out the churches with their improvisations and compositions based on these popular carols, and many people today, even when the carols themselves are unfamiliar, find the arrangements very attractive.
The YouTube category of our competition asks participants to perform a similar task — to create tropes on (i.e., covers of) popular music, like Daquin did with French carols — so I especially liked beginning the blog with this example. Aside from being a sort of dialogue with a traditional carol, Daquin’s arrangement emphasizes the idea of dialogue throughout. As Eric writes, the piece is “to be played on the full set of reed stops of the organ in dialogue with a series of duet registrations.” So the piece achieves its wide range of timbral and spatial variation not by modulating (changing keys), as a piece by Daquin’s contemporary Jean-Phillipe Rameau might, but by utilizing the entire range of the organ’s pipes, as well as by mixing in a variety of improvisatory ornaments to each consecutive iteration of the carol.
Daquin’s many echoes in this piece give it its conversational quality. Just as each variation is an embellished echo of the original, Daquin provides this effect in micro form as well by juxtaposing corresponding motives that bounce from register to register of the organ, so that they ricochet from different corners of the chapel. This is what’s happening in the ascending three-note motive in 00:42-00:49 (despite the flat sound of the YouTube clip). The motive sounds in one part of the church, then echoes back in a different part.
As an aside, one of my favorite parts of the piece is the sustained trill at around 2:45, which stopped time for me each time I heard it last Friday night.
For your listening pleasure, here’s a Dutch version of the original carol:
Where else do you hear conversation happening in this work?
Jean-Paul Montagnier. “Daquin, Louis-Claude.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/07208 (accessed January 2, 2011).
Wikipedia contributors, “Organ stop,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Organ_stop&oldid=405034155 (accessed January 2, 2011).