Winter 2023: Celtic Noëls
At Nazareth, in Galilee,
Hear now the angel’s voice:
“Hail Mary, thou Mother of God,
The Lord has made his choice.”
Sung by a single soprano, these lines are like a trumpet call. They signal the news that Archangel Gabriel brings to the young virgin Mary of Nazareth; they also signal the start of the Celtic Noëls.
This group of pieces was recorded by the community chorus Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde (Choral Ensemble from the Edge of the Earth) partly in a studio and partly in the Abbaye (Abbey) Saint-Guénolé de Landévennec in far western Brittany, France, in 1997. They were released on the CD Noëls Celtiques (Green Linnet Records) in 1998; the disc has since won several awards.
“From the rich cultural heritage of the Celts in Brittany, a stunning collection of traditional and contemporary vocal music for the holidays, sung in Breton by this world-class choral ensemble from France” is how the Celtic Noëls are described on the CD. They are indeed stunning: deeply devotional, charmingly melodic, a winning blend of folk, popular, classical, and church-hymn influences.
Nym Cooke, Music Director of the Quinebaug Valley Singers (now Wings of Song), heard this music in 2004 and was bowled over. He and his daughter Thalia Slocombe soon set to work making English “singing versions” (rhymed and metered) of the texts. That Christmas, QVS and a Barre, Mass. chorus, the Band of Voices, presented the world premiere of the English-language Celtic Noëls.
The Quinebaug Valley Singers performed the Celtic Noëls two more times, partnering with the Band of Voices again (along with Nym’s school chorus) in 2008 and combining with the Quaboag Choral Society in 2015. This year, Wings of Song is pleased to offer this gorgeous music once again to audiences in south-central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut.
The Celtic Noëls are not only a celebration of Christmas from a Christian perspective; they are an affirmation of Brittany’s own culture, and of Celtic culture in general. The particular flavor of Celtic music comes across strongly here: sometimes a little wild, often with a feeling of closeness to large, untamable, natural forces. Thunder, wind, even bird-cries are in this music, and instruments other than voices are crucial here: the Noëls call for a band comprised of high sopranino recorder, acoustic guitar, piano, and church organ, as well as a gigantic drum and an equally colossal gong.
In recognition of Brittany’s own language, which is much closer to other Celtic tongues such as Welsh than it is to French, and which is also a badge of cultural identity for the Breton people, the chorus will sing verses in several songs in Breton. The first half of the concert will be comprised of French pieces for Christmas from several centuries—again, largely sung in English. The concert as a whole promises a deep dive into a hauntingly beautiful repertory of music for the season.
These concerts are simply not to be missed. It is suggested that you put them on your calendar now: Saturday, December 9th at 7:30pm at St. Joachim Chapel, part of St. Anne/St. Patrick Parish, 16 Church Street, Fiskdale, Mass.; and/or Sunday, December 10th at 3pm at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, 18 East Main Street, Webster, Mass. Wings of Song concerts are always free, with a freewill offering collected at intermission. Complimentary refreshments—i. e., yummy eats and beverages!—are served in a jolly social hour after each performance. All venues are handicap accessible.
For more information about Wings of Song or the Celtic Noëls concerts, contact Music Director Nym Cooke at firstname.lastname@example.org, or President Carol Curtin at email@example.com. The chorus’s Spring 2024 concerts will feature music of the ocean, in a program titled “Rough Seas, Safe Harbor.”