Advent Calendar Day 18: Coventry Carol

This carol goes beyond Advent and right to the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th, but I think it’s worth including here.  I think I’ve already demonstrated that Advent isn’t all sweetness and light, and this is quite the opposite.

The Coventry Carol started its life as one of the musical numbers in a 16th century in a mystery play, and tells the story of Herod, who after hearing the wise men say they were looking for an infant king, immediately gave orders that all infants in Bethlehem be killed (Herod wasn’t fond of children).  This may or may not be historical truth, but it’s a pretty sobering story about how power can corrupt.

I love this recording, not least because it’s one of the few that uses the old version of this carol, with the changing time signature (which wouldn’t have existed at all in the original), and the F naturals scattered about to confuse the unwary.  (There are plenty of unwary in my work Christmas choir, and I routinely confuse them with this.) And the voices and musicianship, as always with the King’s College choir, are impeccable.  But in my travels, I also found this version, sung as a solo with lute accompaniment, and it made me cry.  The singer is, I think, using contemporary pronunciation of the English in the song, and she gives so much expression and urgency to the words (especially in verse two) that it’s quite breathtaking.

Actually, it’s so breathtaking that I find myself entirely without words after hearing it.  And perhaps that is the point.  Music, done well, speaks on a very deep emotional level where words do not apply.

(Having said that, I do suddenly have an urge to go and pray for all parents who have lost a child or children.  And it occurs to me that there is probably a reason why I am suddenly thinking about the Coventry Carol and being moved to tears.  Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.)

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