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The First Noel for String Quartet

By Traditional

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String Quartet - Early Intermediate - Digital Download
Composed by Traditional. Arranged by James M. Guthrie, ASCAP. Christian, Repertoire, Christmas. Score, Set of Parts. 7 pages. Published by jmsgu3 (S0.428733).

Item Number: S0.428733

Score: 3 pages, String parts 1 page each. The First Noel arranged for Alto Sax & Piano with new harmony for the final verse.


The First Noel is an English Christmas carol. Even more, it was probably written in the late Cornish Renaissance period. While other versions spell the title as Nowell, this is just a colloquial variation. Furthermore, Noel is an older word meaning “Christmas.” Therefore “the First Noel” translates as “the First Christmas.” First of all, Gilbert and Sandy published the earliest version. As a result, this version appears in the “Carols Ancient and Modern” songbook of 1823. William Sandy edited and arranged the book. Similarly, his partner Davies Gilbert edited and added the familiar extra verses. The First Noel: String Quartet Version comes with new harmony in final verse for more energy and drive.


Organist and composer Sir John Stainer published the most noteworthy customary arrangement in the 1870’s.  Stainer is above all famous for his songbook entitled: Christmas Carols New and Old (1871). This volume served as an important catalyst for reviving the English Christmas carol.  Other famous Stainer arrangements from this book are such titles as What Child Is This, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Good King Wenceslas, and I Saw Three Ships.

Diatonic Function

The melodic structure in the First Noel is uncommon among English folk tunes. It simply repeats one phrase twice then follows a variation refrain. All three phrases of the song end on the mediant scale degree. This is unusual because the diatonic function of the mediant is non-final compared to the more usual tonic or even dominant degrees. Consequently, this gives the song as kind of open-ended feeling – like maybe it never really ends.

Political Context

The Catholic clergy sang carols outside of the church in Latin. After the Protestant Reformation, the reformers thought it would be better for everyone to sing carols. They decided to bring music back to the common folk. So, they translated the lyrics from Latin into common language. Moreover, the Protestants wanted more control over the music in church than what the Vatican allowed. Protestant composers such as William Byrd composed complex polyphonic Christmas music that they called carols. Nonetheless, some famous folk carols were composed in this era. Eminent composers in the nineteenth century began to revise and adapt them. Consequently, they revived the English carol.



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