Showing posts with label Coventry Carol. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Coventry Carol. Show all posts

Friday, December 14, 2012

Coventry Carol, a mystery play (jillian)

We've entered into the time of carols.  I'm the sort of person who most definitely gravitates towards "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and cringes from the likes of "Silver Bells."  (Although my aversion to the song might have more to do with an awful, cloying 1960s rendition of the tune of which I grew up hearing.)  I love Christmas carols for their beauty and their rich history, and in some cases their bizarreness.  Which brings me to "Coventry Carol."

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

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

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

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

I first sang an arrangement of this carol with my high school women's choir ten years ago.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who first heard this beautiful, haunting song and wondered what on Earth it had to do with Christmas.  This is, of course, about the massacre of the innocents, which took place after Jesus' birth; King Herod, learning that a king was born to the Jews (a king that would challenge his own kingship), ordered all the male babies in Bethlehem destroyed.  Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus into the wilderness.

The song itself is the last surviving remnant of a 16th century mystery play from Coventry, England called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors.  (Ye Olde Wiky-paedia.) Mystery plays were a staple of the Middle Ages, tableau performances and songs depicting Bible stories or scenes from the lives of saints.  The shearman and the tailors were probably members of that particular trade guild, not monks or nuns... although there were such performances within monasteries.  "Mystery" in this context actually means "miracle." 

What intrigues me about this song is that it alone survived the test of time.  "Coventry Carol" is a mystery of a mystery.  What did the happier songs of the shearmen and tailors' pageant sound like?  Why did this song endure the test of time?  Was it simply the prettiest?  Or has it a mind of its own, haunting down through the ages to testify about the brutality of the age into which Christ was born?  And who had the powerful idea of making it a lullaby?  Did they have any idea, when they sat down by candlelight to plan out their guild's Christmas pageant in, say, 1530 that people would be singing it and wondering about it well into 2012 and beyond?  That my friends, is special!  Merry Christmas!


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