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A carol a day: The Coventry Carol


We are repeating last year’s series about Christmas carols. This was first published on December 10, 2018.

AS requested by TCW reader Charles Dawne, today’s choice is the Coventry Carol. Mr Dawne describes it as ‘haunting’ and I agree. It is a long way from the joyful nature of many other carols, dealing as it does with King Herod’s order that all first-born boys under the age of two in Bethlehem should be killed in an effort to ensure the death of the infant King of the Jews, an event known as the Massacre of the Innocents. The words are a mother’s lament for her doomed child, and I see it as a foreshadowing too of Christ’s death on the Cross.

This is a very ancient work. The words were used in the Coventry Mystery Plays, annual pageants based on the Bible performed by trades guilds in the city which were first recorded in a document of 1392-3, and continued for nearly two centuries. The young Shakespeare may have seen them since his home in Stratford-upon-Avon was only 20 miles away. The song now called the Coventry Carol appeared in the play named The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, depicting the Christmas story from chapter two of the Gospel of Matthew. This was given by the sheep-shearers and tailors of Coventry on the steps of the city’s cathedral. The only surviving text was edited by Robert Croo in 1534 and these are the words:

1. Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

2. O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

3. Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

4. Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

The plays were suppressed for religious reasons in 1579. Twelve years later, in 1591, the music was added to Croo’s manuscript by Thomas Mawdyke, possibly in a failed attempt to get the plays revived. Music buffs will know that the melody contains a good example of a Tierce de Picardie, or Picardy third. This is a major chord at the end of a piece of music in a minor key, giving it a more optimistic sound.

The Coventry Carol was featured in the BBC’s Empire Broadcast of Christmas 1940 in the wake of the bombing of Coventry, then a centre of manufacture of munitions and aeroplane parts. The most disastrous raid was on the night of November 14-15 when 515 German bombers pounded the city. The 14th century Cathedral, dedicated to St Michael, was burned out and most of the city centre destroyed. Here is a bit of colour film of the aftermath.

The BBC broadcast concluded with the singing of the carol in the ruins of the Cathedral. These still stand next to the new Cathedral which was consecrated in 1962, and visiting both old and new, with their theme of reconciliation, is a most moving experience.

Here is an orchestral version of the Coventry Carol by Leroy Anderson accompanied by pictures of the old and new Cathedrals.

Here it is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge,

and here is Alison Moyet, whose voice I love.

You can read last year’s comments here.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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