On ‘The Coventry Carol’…

November 10th, 2016

With the festive period well and truly underway and with Christmas day just round the corner, I thought it would be a good time to address a fairly inane though entertaining question: what is my favourite piece of Christmas music? Various carols come to mind: Gabriel’s Message, It Came upon the Midnight Clear, Gaudete; plainchants: Veni, veni, Emmanuel, Verbum caro factum est and more recent offerings such as Howells’s Spotless Rose, Leighton’s Lully, lulla and John Joubert’s rousing Torches. However there is one piece that I keep returning to, probably because it sounds very unlike anything else that is aired over the festive period – The Coventry Carol.

What is it about this piece that gives it such great appeal? Well for a start it isn’t the warm feeling I get inside after listening to it – it is based on Chapter II of Matthew and describes the wonderfully festive Massacre of the Innocents by Herod – no chestnuts roasting by the open fire there then. What I do think is present is a serene, almost timeless quality that sets this piece apart from the majority of other traditional carols; yes it is a Medieval piece, but the plaintive melodies and insecure G minor harmonies give a very contemporary feel to this carol. Perhaps what I like best about it is the wonderfully piquant simultaneous false relation (blue note) that occurs towards the end of each verse – a harmony you just don’t expect at Christmas time!

The Coventry Carol dates from the late sixteenth century (though I suspect it may be from earlier) and forms part of the Mystery Play The Pageant of Shearman and Tailors which is still performed in Coventry to this day. The words, as you may expect, are harrowing and focus on a Mother’s lament for her doomed child and the minor mode and blue notes helps to enforce this sorrow. We know (or I know) little else about the origins of the piece as the only surviving copy was destroyed in a fire in the late nineteenth century, therefore any variations between recordings are purely interpretational and may be nothing like how it was originally intended.

So there you go, The Coventry Carol for me any day. Or Chris de Burgh’s A Spaceman Came Travelling. Merry Christmas.


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