Music of the Month: The First Noel

The First Noel is one of the final contributions to the Concordia Publishing House choral catalog by the late Carl F. Schalk (1929–2021). Schalk’s soaring tune and captivating setting of the beloved Christmas carol is set for SATB, strings, tubular bells, and timpani. Useful for concerts, services, and pageants, the piece is a processional carol. The new tune and unique combination of instrumentation will engage listeners and set the tone for concerts and worship.

Behind the Scenes: Recording The First Noel

Among the newly published choral music by CPH in 2021, The First Noel was recorded at Kramer Chapel on the campus of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, earlier this year. Given the combination of unique instruments used in this score and the restrictions for gathering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the instrumental and choral parts were recorded separately and then layered for the final sample.

“One inspiration for this was that our local Fort Wayne Children’s Choir undertook a major recording in the fall of 2020, recording several pieces with Fort Wayne Philharmonic musicians using the same procedure,” said Kevin Hildebrand, Kantor at CTSFW and director of the ensembles that recorded CPH’s new choral music.

“My daughter sings with [Fort Wayne Children’s Choir], so I was familiar with this project. Mr. Jonathan Busarow, executive director of the FWCC and also a singer on the recording of The First Noel, helped guide me through this process and what we would need to do,” Hildebrand said. “We also were blessed with the audio expertise of Rev. Chris Gillespie, our recording engineer, who knew exactly how to make this work.”

After getting technology and mechanics planned and in place, Hildebrand hired musicians, rented a set of tubular bells, and set out to begin the recording process. Three separate recordings were made: a digital piano recording, an instrumental recording, and a choral recording.

“The piano played all the choral parts along with the instrumentalists, but the piano sound was only audible through headphones worn by me and the audio engineer, and not picked up by the microphones in the chapel,” Hildebrand said. “In addition, every time the choral parts had long chords, especially with a ritardando, like at the end of each refrain, the piano repeated the chord on every quarter note beat in order to provide the tempo changes. It was a bit unusual for the string players when during the a cappella choral sections, they merely sat in a silent room while I conducted the digital piano playing the choral parts, heard only through our sets of headphones!”

The digital piano and instrumental recordings were necessary for the choir to hear through headphones as they recorded their choral parts a few weeks later.

“Each choir member wore a set of headphones, where each singer could hear the instrumental track, including the digital piano doubling the choir parts. The result was that the choir was perfectly in sync with the instruments, even during the a cappella sections and during the tempo changes,” Hildebrand said. “When the audio was edited, Rev. Gillespie simply muted the piano track and the result is the beautiful rendition we have provided.”

The Result and Practical Use

I sang bass in the group that recorded the new choral music, and we voted this as our favorite piece published by CPH this year. We quickly fell in love with this setting, and it was very moving to rehearse and record in light of Schalk’s recent death. Before we even heard the complete result (remember, we only heard the instrumental parts as recordings through our headphones as we sang), we knew this was a grand and glorious piece of music.

“Frankly, the music is beautiful, and the orchestration for strings, timpani, and tubular bells makes a stirring and grand sound,” Hildebrand said. “The way the refrain climbs up to that last ‘Noel, noel’ is quite moving. I remember the first time we rehearsed this piece, the entire choir was in a sort of stunned silence at the conclusion of the carol, with those stirring string chords and that final bell.”

The piece is around ten minutes long, making it useful for concerts for ensembles at Christmastime or as special music for festival services throughout the Christmas season. It also provides a fresh and new tune and setting of a beloved Christmas carol.

“I think the fact that this is a familiar text helped endear this to the choir quickly,” Hildebrand said. “It’s sometimes a challenge when a composer creates a nontraditional tune to a traditional text. Sometimes that just doesn’t work, but once in a while there’s a brilliant idea, such as this setting, and every time you sing it or listen to it, the new tune becomes even dearer to you.”

Schalk’s Legacy

During his professional career, Schalk published hundreds of choral pieces with sacred music publishers and has more than one hundred titles with CPH. He also wrote essays and books on the history of Church music in the Lutheran Church and on a variety of topics for church musicians. He was the editor for the journal Church Music and composed various hymn tunes and hymn-based preludes for organ.

Hildebrand, who attended Concordia University Chicago (where Schalk taught for more than forty years) as an undergraduate student, said Schalk’s legacy remained steadfast and faithful to the Church’s liturgy while involving musicians and parishioners of all experience and skill levels.

“He knew how to write especially for amateur singers, but in a way that’s not condescending or limiting. His melodies and voice leading are helpful to the singers—simple without being simplistic,” Hildebrand said. “And not only is the musical composition skilled, but the texts he chose to set are also top rate. His life’s work was to foster and encourage church music in the local parish and to emphasize the role of the choir in singing the liturgy and music that support the Church Year and lectionary.”

Sing The First Noel at your church by ordering the choral score below. 

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Written by

Nathan Grime

Nathan Grime is from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a 2020 graduate of Hillsdale College, where he studied rhetoric, public address, and journalism. Nathan is the fifth and sixth grade teacher at Our Savior Lutheran School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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