The First Nowell for String Quartet – The First Nowell (or The First Noel) features on the Manor House String Quartet‘s first CD of string quartet Christmas carols, entitled ‘I Saw Three Ships and other carols’. It is arranged by violinist Vaughan Jones and an audio sample can be heard by following the above link.
‘The First Nowell’ is one of the most popular tunes associated with Christmas but is however a potentially tricky one for the arranger. The reason is that the tune seems to oscillate between A major and D major chords and this can give it the feeling of being ‘samey’ or a little dull. The challenge was to try and deviate from this and give harmonic variety but not so much so that the beautiful simplicity of the melody was in anyway lost.
The carol seems to have started life as a folk melody but was first published in ‘Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern’ (1823) and the word Nowell seems to derive from the lating ‘natalis’ meaning birth. It is thought that this was a Christmas carol traditionally sung as the Yule log was lit.
It works wonderfully for string quartet with the melody emerging clearly and with sensitivity.
You can also purchase the sheet music of Vaughan’s arrangement for the combinations of string quartet and string orchestra here: