My Favorite Carols: The Coventry Carol

>> Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Coventry Carol is another one that became familiar to me by listening to it every year on our Robert Shaw Chorale recordings. This one always haunted me not only because of the darker modal tune (not in a minor key because the key tonal system had not yet been invented), but also because of the lyrics. It depicts a grieving mother singing a lullaby as she rocks her dead child in her arms.

The Coventry Carol is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th Century. The carol was performed in Coventry as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod orders all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother's lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play.

It is notable as a well-known example of a Picardy third. The author is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella.



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