Analysis of “Variations sur un Noel” by Marcel Dupre

Here’s a basic analysis I did of Marcel Dupre’s wonderful piece for organ, “Variations sur un Noel.” You need the sheet music for it to follow the analysis. It’s published by Alphonse Leduc. I found it in the NY Public Library at Lincoln Center. French editions are sometimes hard to find – and expensive. I couldn’t really find any substantial information on his work, or this piece.Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right place. If you know any resources on his work on the internet – in English – please email me.

Marcel Dupré
Variations Sur un Noël op. 20
pour grande orgue
Score published by Alphonse Leduc, Paris; Copyright 1923 
(All commentary refers to this edition of the score.)

Analysis by Arthur Kegerreis 
May 1998 

On Dupré
“Marcel Dupré (b. 1886 d. 1971) was the pre-eminent organist and organ-composer of his generation, linking his masters Widor and Vierne with his pupils, Langlais, Alain, and Messiaen.” — Music in the 20th Century, by William W. Austin

Dupré was a pupil of Guilmont and Widor. He taught organ at the Paris Conservatory from 1926, succeeding Delvincourt as director, 1954-56. He succeeded Widor as organist at Saint-Sulpice in 1934. He was director of the American Conservatory at Fountainbleau from 1947 (preceding Nadia Boulanger). — Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, Don Michael Randel

This piece is often used in recitals because of its virtuostic character.

French Organ Music and Registration 
This piece is written for a French Organ, which has three keyboards or ranks, in addition to the pedals. These can be coupled together for different registrational (or orchestrational, as I like to think of them) effects. Registration is meant here in terms of organ registration or selection of the pipes to be used, not register in terms of pitch. Because of this, often the staves are played on different keyboards, and this is indicated by bold capital letters on the score. The keyboards; named Choir, Swell, and Great; are indicated in French as follows: 
 R. (Recit. = Swell Keyboard) 
Pos. (Positive = Choir Keyboard) 
G. (Grande = Great Keyboard) 
The indication G.P.R. means that all three ranks or keyboards are coupled together. 
The pedal indications should be fairly self-evident.

Because of the orchestrational character of french organ music in general, and particularly that of this piece, I would describe it in some ways as orchestrational variations, since it would be extremely less effective (if it could be performed) on say, piano. Indeed it was the coloristic character of this piece which enchanted me with it when I heard it performed some years ago at the chapel at Columbia University, where E. Power Biggs made many recordings. The performance was a tribute to Biggs, with his widow in attendance, and was held by the American Guild of Organists. Examination of the score, however, does not specify the full variety of coloristic registration which I recall hearing in performance; perhaps Dupré’s specifications are a broad guideline for the registrational characters he desires. But there are fairly specific stops indicated in the score. Yet aside from its orchestrational character, Dupré’s sectional melodic-outline variations employ a wide variety of chromatic and contrapuntal techniqes to be discussed forthwith.

On the enclosed xeroxed score, I have often circled notes which are variations from the original thematic statement. The tempi indicated are those of the recording by John Scott and serve to give an indication of how the recording differs from the composers intention.  Please excuse the pedal indications, registral markings, and phrase indications which were left by a previous NY Public Library Patron.  The accompanying tape has two versions of Scott’s recording; the first version I have time shifted several variations via computer to correspond to the metronome markings on the score; the second is the unaltered version as it appears on the CD.

Melodic thematic variation on a traditional carol 
The theme is based on the French Traditional carol, “Noel Nouvelet.” I have found versions of this in the Oxford Book of Carols, “Love is Come Again” an Easter Carol in G minor; and the Methodist Hymnal, where it is known by the name “Now the Green Blade Riseth,” in F minor. Lyrics to Now the Green Blade Riseth are by J.M.C. Crum, 1872-1958.  The harmonization of “Now the Green Blade Riseth” is by Martin Shaw, 1875-1958. The syllabic breakdown of Crum’s lyrics are 11.10.10 11.

It is hard to guess what is an authentic statement of the original carol; however if we are to assume that the hymnal and Oxford Book of Carols are authentic settings of the carol and it’s original melody, we see by comparison that Dupré has varied even his statement of the original tune, adding melodic variation which makes stronger antecedent and consequent melodic phrases. 
In addition, Dupré has extended the length of the carol. The original has four phrases; Dupré gives it six. The original repeats phrase I in unaltered form once, then states phrase II, then repeats phrase I unaltered as a refrain, an AABA form. Dupré’s form is basically AABBAA, with sleight melodic embellishment; Dupré turns phrase I of the original into his second  phrase, which I have labelled IB. Dupré varies his harmonization with each statement of the theme; therefore I have labelled them IA, IB, IC, ID, despite the fact that the melodic elements of IA:IC and IB:ID correspond exactly. In othere words, IC-ID is a melodic restatement of IA-IB. Perhaps the nature of the more ternary AABBAA form belies the Christian religious implications of the carol; however there are no other numerical implications evident to support this. If it is true, it is as far as that association is carried.

Phrase II of the original begins on the minor third; Dupré begins it an octave above the opening tonic note, yet maintains the character of the original by ending on the second degree. He applies this phrasing to the opening phrase, pausing on the second degree (mm. 4) before restating the phrase and ending on the tonic as in the original (mm. 8). This allows for more melodic movement rather than the more static melody of the original carol.

However, rhythmic variation is completely absent from Dupré’s setting, which uses the same rhythmic phrasing for each phrase, unlike the original which pauses on a dotted quarter in it’s second measure. Yet rhythmic variation is an important element of Dupré’s variations, which state the theme in a variety of meters and levels of abstraction. In many cases the melody is stated unaltered with quite different harmonic settings and tempi, yet a different meter is used to allow for these variations.

In comparing the tempi of the melodic statements, I took the eighth note element and compared the speed at which it’s equivalent unit is used in each variation. Then I applied a percentage comparison of the tempo with the original statement as 100%. Obviously this doesn’t give an impression of the rhythmic character of the harmonic accompaniment, which is often pre-emintent, however, it does show us how the  melody is extended or contracted over time. 


Length & Quality
Var. I 4/49670%Yes21mm. diat/chrom duple
Var. II 6/8168122%No24mm. chrom triple
Var. III  2/47655%Yesdiat. quad.
Var. IV2/4184133%Yes24mm. chrom quad
Var. V6/8(63 harm.) 
189 Trip. 
46% or 
No23mm. chrom. triple
Var. VI    2/4 160116%Yes 26mm. diat duple
Var. VII2/412691%No41mm. diat/chrom duple
Var. VIII4/47252%Yes26mm. diat. quint.
Var IX3/8No43mm. Chrom triple
Var. X4/4 
Yes73mm. diat duple 
(139mm total)

Variation IX presents such a highly abstracted variation that comparison to the original melody is quite difficult, therefore it is left blank on this chart.

Moderato 2/4; quarter note = 69; 24 mm. 
R. (Recit. = Swell Keyboard) Gambe 8 
Theme is in eighth notes; each eighth pulse is 138 bpm 

Variation I – Ornamental & Contrapuntal Variation 
Larghetto 4/4; quarter note = 96; 21 mm. 
Pos. (Positive = Choir Keyboard) Fonds 8.4. (8 and 4 foot foundation stop pipes) 
Réc. (Recit. = Swell Keyboard) Trompette 
Péd. Bd. 16.8 (8 and 16 foot Bourdon pipes; large capped metal or wood flue pipe) 
Theme is in quarter notes; each equivalent pulse is 96 bpm. 
The swell trompette states the melody, closer to the carol’s original statement without IA. The melody is stated an octave below and above it’s original register, and the first phrase from section II is dropped. I believe this variation is using simple second species contrapuntal ornamentation. 
The accompaniment is standard principal foundation pipes of the organ in 4, 8, and 16 foot lengths. This movement states the theme at 70% of the speed of the original theme in a somewhat majestic character.

Variation II – Figural Variation 
Poco animato 6/8; dotted quarter note = 84; 24 mm. 
G.P.R. (Great + Choir + Swell Keyboards) 8’ Flutes 
Pedal 8’ + 16’ Flutes 
This second variation, like the penultimate variation, obfuscates the melody completely. A figural triplet motive runs throughout the movement at 122% of the tempo of the original statement.  It is the same measural length as the original statement, but in 6/8; each equivalent pulse is 168 bpm. The repetitious bassline is reminiscent of ground bass, but is not.  The flutes lend a mysterious and murky character.

Variation III -Contrapuntal Canonic Variation at the octave 
Canon á l’octave 
Cantabile 2/4; eighth note = 76; 24mm. 
G. (Grande = Great Keyboard) Fonds 8 
R. (Recit. = Swell Keyboard) Voix céleste 
Péd. Fonds 8 
Theme is in eighths again; 76 bpm 
In this variation, the pedal and great are coupled together, and the swell is coupled to both of them. Therefore the diatonic harmonic accompaniment, based on descending four note motivic figure, is played only by the Voix Celeste, however the octave canon is played by the Voix Celeste and  the Foundation 8 foot stop. The top voice plays IB IB IIA IIB IB while the second canonic voice plays IB IA IIA IIB IB or D an octave below. The B natural of the original theme is altered to a B flat in both voices for the IB phrases. It has a contemplative, light descending character, stating the melody at only 55% of the original tempo.

Variation IV 
Vif  2/4; quarter note = 92; 24 mm. 
R. (Recit. = Swell Keyboard) mixtures 
Péd. Sb. 16 B.8 TB. 
This variation is the first to introduce the melody in the bass. The theme, stated literally and unaltered, is in eighths again; at 184 bpm, or 133% of the tempo of the original statement. It uses highly chromatic simultaneous harmonic accompaniment, based again on a four note figure, this time a chromatic figure.  It has a rigid, turgid, angry, strict metered character as a consequence of the tempo, simultaneous moving harmony, and use of the mixtures in the swell.

Variation V – Figural chromatic  variation 
Vivace 6/8; dotted quarter = 63; 23mm. 
Pos. (Positive = Choir Keyboard) Flute 8 
R. (Recit. = Swell Keyboard) Fonds 8.4 
Ped. Bd 16 TR 
Because the measure length of the variation is almost the same as the original statement, the overall harmonic pulse would correspond to 63; but the triplet figuration seems to lend a pulse of 189. 
Having introduced the statement of the melody in the bass in the previous variation, Dupré now states the melody in octaves in the bass; eighth-eighth-pause/eighth-eighth-pause; one eighth of the original melody per dotted quarter of this variation. This is harder to recognize. Thus the melody is elongated durationally, however the rapid triplet pulse of the chromatic melodic figure gives a rapid pulse to the movement. Thus the variation has two different rhythmic strata.

He begins with IB, then uses fragments of IIA, then IIB, and then he introduces melodic simplification by leaving out notes of the melody in the bass line, pausing, and repeating figures.

It has a very mysterious character, again due to the use of flute, bourdon, and foundation stops.

Variation VI – Canonic Contrapuntal Variation at 4th and 5th 
Canon à la quarte et à la quinte 
Plus modéré 2/4; performed at quarter = 80, no specific metronome indication in score; 26 mm. 
P. (Positive = Choir Keyboard) Clarinette 
G. (Grande = Great Keyboard)Violoncelle 
Ped. Basson 16 TR 
This variation states the theme in eighths again, as performed with an eighth value of 160, at 116% of the original. Voice one states the unaltered theme in the choir with a Clarinette pipe. Voice two enters with the theme in the major key, a fourth lower, with the Violoncelle pipe. Finally voice three enters at the fifth, an octave and fourth below. This voice, the 16 foot basson, receives the most alteration in mm. 7-8, 16-17, and the closing phrase in mm. 23-26. All three voices do their best to state all six phrases of the original theme.

Variation VII -Duple figural variation utilizing lower-neighbor gracenotes 
Vivace 2/4; quarter = 126; 41mm. 
R. (Recit. = Swell Keyboard) Bourdon 16, Flute 4 
Ped. Sb. 16, Flute 4 
Theme harmonic mvt. = quarter notes, 126; 91% 
This variation has a dancelike character due to the treatment of the bass. The grace notes seem to become clusters in the reverberant church setting. What must be judged to be the II section is distinguished by running eighths in the bass line. Judging from the harmonic pulse, I would guess that the melody is being stated at 91% of the original speed. Another more mysterious variation, seeming to ebb and flow in speed, with a light character due to the flute pipes.

Variation VIII -Contrapuntal canonic variation at the second 
Canon à la seconde 
Cantabile 4/4; quarter = 72; 26 mm. 
R. (Recit. = Swell Keyboard) Voix Humaine 
P. (Positive = Choir Keyboard) Violes Célestes 
Ped. Bourdon 16 TR 
In this somewhat contemplative variation, the theme is in quarter notes, at 52% of the original tempo. A canon is constructed, not a second apart as the title indicates, but, two octaves and a second apart. The pedal is coupled to the swell, with the 16’ bourdon producing a fundamental even an octave below what is written in the score. This pipe is doubled with the 8’ Voix Humaine. The second voice is altered substantially, opening with a tritone followed by a minor sixth rather than the major sixth in the melody. The opening bass voice plays six phrases, but only the B sections of I and II. (IB IB IIB IIB IB IB) The second voice plays the same phrases but introduces more extreme dissonance.

The choir keyboard plays a repetitive quintuplet figure throughout the movement which rises and falls with chromatic alteration. The figuration of this line seems to be pulling at the seams of the canonic melody. This quintuplet is providing a rhythmic accelleration which is carried into the next two variations.

In the last two measures the dissonance of the canon is resolved by a two octave unison on the tonic, which is joined by the accompaniment in the last measure.

Variation IX – Characteristic Variation; Carousel-like chromatic rising and falling swells 
Animé 3/8; dotted quarter = 76; 43 mm. 
P. (Positive = Choir Keyboard) Clarinette 
G. (Grande = Great Keyboard)Grosse Flùte 
Ped. Bourdon 16, 8

The dancelike “Oom pah-pah pah” accompaniment of this variation gives it a dance-like character; the chromatic ascending and falling thirds give it a carousel-like quality. It is the most comic of the movements, and because of these features I would describe it as a characteristic variation. I cannot find any clear statement of the theme in it. The dancelike tones are given to the low flute pipes, with the reedy clarinette pipes in the positive rank carrying the chromatic line.

The chromatic third sixteenth note figures provide increasing rhythmic rapidity, leading to the climatic final variation to follow and building on the tempo of the quintuplets in the last movement. The quintuplets in last movement occured at 360 bpm: the sixteenths here are 456 bpm. These thirds open into larger intervals during some of the descending passages, providing a harmonic departure and added direction in a break from the chromatic line.

The rising and falling chromatic sixteenth note figure throughout this variation foreshadows the shape of  the eighth note motivic theme in the following fugue. Without this movement, the tenth variation would seem like a more abrupt transition. The diminished harmonic motive in the central stave builds a tension which is relieved by the transition to the fugal section in the following variation as well.

Variation X -Figurative and Contrapuntal Fugal Variation 
Non troppo vivace 4/4; half note = 92; 139 mm. total 
G.P.R. (Grande = Great Keyboard) + (Positive = Choir Keyboard) + 
(Recit. = Swell Keyboard) Mixtures 
et Fds 84 
Ped. Fds 16.8 
1) mm. 26 theme in pedal; half notes 92; 67% 
2) Presto 2/4 at mm. 74; quarter = 138; 100% 
    Theme in pedal is in quarters 138

This noble climactic movement appears to broadly incorporate elements from all the previous movements in a fugal setting. It is broken into two sections; the opening fugue and the pedal cadenza with its blazing and shimmering accompaniment.

The opening section uses a motivic cell with a consistent eighth note pulse throughout. Mixtures are used in the entire movement; they are brighter, louder, basically more of everything. Coupling of all the ranks is used in some places for further emphases.

The opening fugue starts with IA, and Voice 2 enters a fifth above, in true fugal character. At this point the accompaniment begins a downward chromatic descent somewhat reminiscent of the soprano line in Variation IV. At measure 9, voice 2 has jumped to a statement of the opening motive an octave higher, and the accompaniment takes on a chordal texture. At measure 13, voices 1 and 2 join together in this chordal texture, now with sleight syncopation, as the pedal enters with the thematic motive. The opening chordal statements have ascending intervallic leaps which add to the dramatic impact of the pedal’s entrance. At measure 17, the pedal drops out and the top voice takes up the opening motive again, returning to the character of measure 9. At 22, rhythmic syncopation in the ascending upper chordal motive begins a rhythmic elongation for the contrasting pedal entrance at 26. Here the theme IB is stated 4 times slower, in half notes, while the upper voices continue both rhythmic pulses which have carried on up until this point; the top voice in continuous eighths and the middle voice in chordal quarters.  At 33, the top voice, with all ranks coupled to it, takes the theme at this tempo, while the pedal accellerates, doubling to a quarter note pulse. Furthermore, the theme is finally stated in a major key,  but not for long. At 41 it moves back to minor, and long eighth note passages descend as the harmony ascends, with a crescendo indicated beginning at 42.

At 56, Dupré begins the chordal figuration which will be carried throughout the ending of the piece. Throughout this section, Dupré ascends to pitches he hasn’t deployed yet, and chordal figurations at these heights are rooted to a pedal melody in octaves (that’s right, he’s playing with two feet and two hands…). The chromatic figurations reminiscent of the chromatic movements of the variations are added throughout this section. At 62 the pedal syncopates the melody, and at 66 widening intervals open to the octave displacement which characterizes the harmonic accompaniment of the last cadenza while the pedal takes up the chromaticism in a descending line.

At 70 Dupré pulls out all the stops, and the finale has the pedal states IA and IB, and then uses a melodic build to reach the modulation to major at 106. At this point, Dupré is widening chromatic lines in the harmony by offsetting them by an octave. Having modulated to major, he repeats first the IA phrase, and then fragments of it, increasing the rhythmic tempo of the pedal line, then the intervallic character of the upper voices is broadened, building tension, as the pedal is used to stomp the feet for emphasis. A final harmonic phrase closes the piece, full volume.