(Traditional/Emile Blemont/Marc-Antoine Charpentier/Louis-Denis Seguin)
(English Translation: Edward Cuthbert Nunn)
(Alternate Version: Nicolas Saboly)
Starting out as a dance song for the French nobility, the music is thought to have originated in Provencal, France, possibly as early as the 14th century. Also known by its French name “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella”, there have been several thoughts about the inspiration for the song including the tradition of building a creche to honour the baby Jesus and a Nativity scene painting by Georges de la Tour, which shows two girls watching the baby.
Emile Blemont added words to the tune in the 19th century and they relate the story of two milkmaids stumbling upon the baby Jesus in his manger and they rush back to tell the people from their village, who all carry torches to go and see him for themselves. The music for the carol heard today is generally credited to the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier that was adapted by the collector of his works, Louis-Denis Seguin and a version also been attributed to the French composer Nicolas Saboly. There have also been many claims as to when it was first published going from the compilation Cantiques de Premiere Advenement de Jesus-Christ by a French count in 1553 to Noel Francais by Julien Tiescot in 1901.
Edward Cuthbert Nunn made the translation that is regularly heard at English carol services today and traditionally in France the children in the Provence area dress up as milkmaids and shepherds and sing the carol while travelling to the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. John Rutter & The Cambridge Singers, Kathleen Battle and Joan Baez have made recordings of the carol and the American composer Leroy Anderson included it as part of his Suite of Carols for String Orchestra.
Leroy Anderson and His Orchestra recordings
Decca B0003552-02 (CD: A Leroy Anderson Christmas)
Deborah Henson-Conant recordings
Golden Cage (CD: The Gift)
Harp– Deborah Henson-Conant
Mannheim Steamroller recordings
American Gramaphone Records AG 1984 (CD: Christmas)
Robert Shaw Chorale recordings
RCA 6429 – 2 – RG (CD: A Festival of Carols)
(Arrangers – Robert Shaw/Alice Parker)