When Dupré’s Op 20 was published in 1923, it was titled ‘Variations sur un Noël’. Since then, however, it has been more often referred to as Variations sur un vieux Noël
, the title under which it appears in the list of works appended to Marcel Dupré raconte …
, the autobiographical volume which appeared in 1972. The tune is, of course, Noël nouvelet
, an old French carol, the unmistakably first mode opening of which hints at an ancient liturgical origin, for it begins just like the plainsong Ave maris stella
. As Dupré’s theme, it consists of six four-bar phrases, moderato 2/4, in which the modal tune in D is simply harmonized in four parts. In the succeeding movements, contrapuntal variations alternate with freer ones. Variation 1, a larghetto in common-time, divides the theme between tenor and treble on a trumpet stop, maintaining quaver counterpoint above or below it. Variation 2 loses sight of the theme in the chromatic twistings of a poco animato in 6/8. Variation 3 presents the theme, cantabile in canon at the octave between treble and bass against a rocking Voix Céleste accompaniment. Variation 4 has the theme staccato in the pedals, beneath piquant manual chords. Variation 5 is a scurrying right-hand study, vivace 6/8, with its triplet semiquavers lightly accompanied by staccato chords for left hand and pedals. Variation 6 is an ingeniously strict trio, presenting the theme in canon at the fourth and fifth. Variation 7 is another vivace, but one that bristles with appoggiaturas. Variation 8 presents the theme, cantabile, in canon at the second, between the pedals and Voix Humaine in the treble. Variation 9, in 3/8, is a brilliant study in thirds. Variation 10 is a fugato which presents the theme in diminution and augmentation before leading into a toccata. Here the theme roars in the pedals, first in the minor, then in the major, beneath a carillon of clashing chords.
from notes by Felix Aprahamian © 1998