Showing posts with label carols. Show all posts
Showing posts with label carols. 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!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Auld Lang Syne (Jillian)

The characters from It's a Wonderful Life get ready to sing "Auld Lang Syne."

As you well know, I get curious about life's little mysteries and find myself on mini-journeys to explore them. Today's is the phrase and song "Auld Lang Syne", sung not just at New Years Eve but also at funerals and farewell gatherings (thank you wikipedia).

I remember finding this song way in the back of a old children's Christmas carol book that my sister and I "improved" with crayon. I remember thinking - when I was old enough to read - that the phrase couldn't be English, didn't sound like any Christmas song I'd ever heard of and wondered what the fuss was all about when they sang it at the end of It's a Wonderful Life.

First of all, according to the wonderful Oxford Dictionaries, "auld lang syne" is an 18th century Scottish phrase meaning "times long past" or "for old time's sake." So... vernacular Scotch-English. Definitely nothing to do with Christmas, as was my original instinct all those years ago, crayon in hand. (Sorry, Mom!)

What thrills me about songs like this is its endurance through the ages. According to Wikipedia, it was a poem by Robert Burns in 1788, set to a traditional folk tune... which makes me think the tune, and perhaps the sentiment is hundreds of years older than we think. And yet, old as it is, we return to it and sing it without fail year after year in the presence of our loved ones.

Like the old Christmas carols that rose from Nativity plays (Coventry Carol), Gregorian chants (O Come O Come Emmanuel), or side-track legends (Good King Wenceslas), there is something undefinable but potent about these songs' ability to endure and inspire... that the past and the future are both not nearly as far away as we think them to be, and that with all the lessons we've learned and the hopes we've gathered, good things can happen.

New Years, so soon after Christmas, is soaked in Christmastide hope (and it's particularly true when you consider how Christmas doesn't official end until Epiphany, the 6th of January). Knowing the gift God has bestowed, we can go into the new year and leave the old behind with joy.

Here are the lyrics to this timeless song:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne? [days gone by/long time since]

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne!

And surely you’ll buy your pint-cup,
And surely I’ll by mine!
And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.


We two have run about the slopes
And picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
Since auld lang syne.


We two have paddled in the stream
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught
For auld lang syne!

May 2012 be full of discoveries and writing whimsies!

- Jillian

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lo, How a Rose E're Blooming and other tales (Jillian)

Once upon an advent, I "discover" a "new" carol. "New" because it is new to me, or it had never interested me before. Carols are rich in history and echoes of medieval legend, so naturally, I never tire of them. They represent more than just the story of Christ coming to earth, but of how that story was told again and again in song and folklore across every culture.

As a child at Christmas, I would take the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Christmas Carol book off the piano and gaze at the beautiful nativity scenes, the woodcuts, the many paintings and tryptics of the Madonna and Child. I remember coming across odd carols I'd never heard before - "The Sussex Carol", "Joseph Dear, Oh Joseph Mine," and a Czech carol called "Rocking, Rocking." Then there was the compelling mystery of the Burgundian carol "Patapan" - where was Burgundy? Why had I never heard of that country before? (Northwest France. I think. Burgundy held itself as a separate entity from struggling France in the 100 years war, English allies. Joan of Arc campaigned against them in 1429, was captured by them, and later sold to the English for 10,000 francs by them. Just saying.)

This year's carol curiosity is "Lo, How A Rose E're Blooming." I have to admit, I always thought it was boring. Just boring. And slow. And too somber for Christmas. This may be because I grew up listening to the Mannheim Steamroller version, which presented it in French horn. There is nothing particularly malign about creating a brass rendition of this old song, but it makes the already somber tune too heavy for one who liked dancing around to "In Dulci Jubilo" and "Wassail, Wassail."

But then, I saw The Time Traveler's Wife. If you've ever seen it, please do. It is a beautiful film - a nicely watered down version of the novel. Anyway, "Lo, How A Rose" is woven throughout the film - from Henry DeTamble's mother singing it in the car with her lovely operatic soprano (in the original German), to his wife Claire's bridal procession, to the theme playing at their home in the last few months of his life. This was a simple string ensemble, perhaps a quartet, and it was/is perfect. This song should NEVER have been arranged for brass.

So naturally, I am intrigued and very deeply moved by so simple, so quiet, so lovely a piece.

Here's a little history:

* First officially "published" in 1582, but is probably much older.
* Thought to be from Song of Solomon 2.1 - "I am the rose of Sharon..."
* There is a legend associated with this hymn: a monk in the German town of Trier found a blooming rose while walking in the woods on Christmas Eve. He placed the rose in a vase, and placed it before the alter to the Virgin Mary.
* In 1609, Protestants adapted the hymn to reflect Jesus instead of Mary.
* Wikipedia has the lyrics:


Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen,
aus einer Wurzel zart,
wie uns die Alten sungen,
von Jesse war die Art
Und hat ein Bl├╝mlein bracht
mitten im kalten Winter,
wohl zu der halben Nacht.


Lo, how a rose e'er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Like Christina Rossetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter," it tells of hope in the midst of winter - roses blooming in the snow. That is the beautiful mystery of the Nativity: how Christ was born - whether it was winter or summer - into a dark, cold world. That's a hope we can carry throughout this winter - that there will be roses even in our Winters if we look hard enough.

* Trivia on this hymn is from

Monday, December 29, 2008

Caroling, Caroling (Jillian)

Officially Christmas lasts until 6 January, Epiphany... so I do not believe it is too late to spill some Christmas whimsy here for all to enjoy.

In recent years, I have wondered at the history of carols - those familar, special hymns that have become ingrained into our culture for hundreds of years - particularly the ones that I was least "exposed" to as a child. Mysteries in general are interesting to me, so here I dig. (In retrospect, it might have been thoroughly festive to have posted interesting facts on lesser known carols the entire length of the "Twelve Days", but, alas, that might have to wait till next year!) I have always marveled at "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", and "What Child is This?" but I wondered at obscurities like "In the Bleak Midwinter," and its more pensive melody that takes it farther down the spectrum from "Joy to the World" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" I discovered, thanks to the sometimes-helpful source of Ye Olde Wikipedia, that it was a poem written by Christina Rossetti in 1872... and only published after her death.

Check out the first two verses of the poem:

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

"See? This is what Christmas is all about!" If you have ever heard the melody, you'll know that the music matches the words - pensive and quiet... and maybe a little "bleak". But it is absolutely perfect... more so because I imagine this as a poem from a writer not intending her words to be put to music, just writing... and pondering... and praying... true to herself.

Another carol added to the ultimate Christmas playlist!

For your reference: wiki article.


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