Advent Calendar Day 18: Coventry Carol (Anon)

I think the most well-known of all the lullay-themed carols for a modern audience is the Coventry Carol.  The melody is, in fact, one of the first things I learned how to play on the recorder when I was at school in York as a six-year-old. On reflection, this is rather apt, as the Coventry Carol is taken from the Coventry Mystery Plays, and York has a long tradition of Mystery Plays, and still produces one every year.

Mystery plays were a form of religious theatre, popular in the Middle Ages.  They tended to be highly cooperative endeavours, with different guilds or fellowships writing and producing different scenes from the bible, often themed to their particular area of expertise – the shipbuilders guild would do Noah’s Ark, for example; the goldsmiths and jewelers would do the three Kings; and the butchers provided lots of pigs’ blood for the crucifixion.  A full sequence of mystery plays would tell the entire story of humanity, from creation to the final battle between God’s angels and the beast, and would often last 18-20 hours – they would be performed on the longest day of the year from a series of wagons or stalls in the middle of the village.

(Of course, as these stories were produced, by and large, by artisans and tradesmen who couldn’t read or speak the Latin of the church, some of these stories got a bit… muddled.  Sort of popular folk history of the Bible, leading to all sorts of extra bits and pieces that aren’t actually there.  Lucifer, for example, is in far more scenes than one might expect, and in the York plays, he is even the source of Pilate’s Wife’s Dream – he explains that this is a case of doing something good for the greater wickedness, since if Jesus is spared by Pilate, there can be no resurrection and thus no redemption for humanity…)

As you might have gathered from this lengthy digression, I’m pretty excited about Mystery Plays, and I was lucky enough to be in York a couple of years ago when they performed the plays in the Minster.  It was an astonishing experience – they still use the original scripts (though much abridged – this performance lasted a mere four hours), which gave a feeling of stepping back in time. The atmosphere was awe-inspiring, and the scenes ranged from beautiful, to deeply moving, and from hilarious to harrowing.

Which brings us back to today’s carol, which comes from the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors of Coventry.  And their play was the story of Herod’s slaughter of all the infants of Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus, and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. This carol was sung by the women of Bethlehem, holding their infants, after the Holy Family has fled, so it’s pretty confronting.

The tune below dates from 1534, and the lyrics likewise.  If you learned the tune at school, this will have some surprises – Walford Davies arranged it for four parts in the early 20th century, and at the same time, he made it more regular and more like something a modern audience would expect to here.  The version below has the original timings, which change from 4/2 to 3/2 and back, and has a really crunchy discord in the verses (and also a G natural that nobody expects, especially not my work choir), which gives it more complexity than the more commonly sung version.

This is, of course, not at all about Advent, so if you’d like your authentic medieval music with more Advent and less child-slaying, allow me to recommend to your attention this recording of ‘Lullay, Lullow’ from the Ritson manuscript of 1475, performed by Emily Levy and Katharine Taylor, with Richard Vendome on psaltery.


Advent Calendar Day 17: Lullay myn lyking – Lawson

Lullay myn lyking is a slightly more traditional form of the text from yesterday’s piece, but with a far more modern arrangement.  This particular text dates from a 15th-century manuscript (from which the lyrics to Adam Lay Y Bounden and I sing of a Maiden also derive), but there is no known tune for it.  Yesterday’s setting was a traditional Basque melody, but today’s is composed by Philip Lawson, of the King’s Singers.  I should probably give you the King’s Singers recording, but you are going to be getting them later this week for another piece, and while they are really peerless I just prefer the sound of a female voice for the ‘lullay’ solo after verse three. A boy-soprano sound, no matter how beautifully produced, doesn’t have the same richness to it, I think.

So instead, you are getting a recording by TENET vocal artists, which is perhaps not so technically perfect, but is nonetheless very beautiful.  I enjoy the interactions between the singers in this recording, too, and I do love the trio of female voices for the ‘mickle melody’ verse.

Advent Calendar Day 16: I saw a maiden sitten and sing – Trad. Basque

Much as artists throughout the ages have been inspired to paint the Madonna and Child, composers have been similarly inspired to write songs depicting Jesus on Mary’s knee.  Many of these include a lullaby chorus, and I think that these are some of the most beautiful carols out there (if, perhaps, more Christmas than Advent, but Christmas is only ten days away now, so I think that’s permitted!).  Theme 4 for this Advent, is, therefore, all the lullys and lullas I can get my hands on.

Given that theme, there can be no question of where to start, at least for me.  I conduct a little choir at work, and a few years ago I taught them ‘I saw a maiden’, mostly because I think it has the most beautiful alto line of any carol, but also because I love lines like ‘there was mickle melody at that childes birth’.  My choir was a little leery of all the time signature changes at first, but it has quickly become one of our favourites, particularly among the alto section (who need to be reminded at every performance not to joyously bellow the lullay section – I mean, yes, it’s a fantastic line, but it’s supposed to be a *lullaby*).

This recording is particularly irresistible to me, because not only is it impeccably sung, but you can also see that the altos are every bit as excited about that lullay section as mine are – look for the big grin on the dark-haired alto’s face at the start of every chorus!

For another take on this text, here is a recording of the Guildford Cathedral Choir singing Sloane’s 1927 setting of the same lyrics.

Advent Calendar Day 15: There is no rose of such virtue – Maconchy

I thought I’d finish this sequence with a 20th century arrangement by a woman composer, Elizabeth Maconchy. Maconchy was born in 1907 in Hertfordshire, England, and seems to have written mostly for string quartets and chamber orchestras, though she wrote a handful of operas for children.

There aren’t a lot of women composers out there, mostly because performing music is a cooperative endeavour, and so eras when a woman’s sphere was supposed to be the home, it was far harder for a woman to get her work performed and into the public eye than it was for, say, a woman writer or artist, who could work alone (and publish under a male name if necessary).  So I’m inclined to feature women composers when I see them.

Having said that, I would have picked this out of all the modern arrangements of this text simply for the high, lively ‘allelulias’ at the start, which sound to me like a particularly delighted chorus of angels.  I like the lightness and delicacy of this piece very much, and it’s easy to see how Maconchy’s style would adapt itself to chamber ensembles.




Advent Calendar Day 14: There is No Rose of Such Virtue – Chanticleer

I bet you thought that Jesus was the only rose in this story.  Surprise!  Mary also gets to be a rose.  Obviously, this horticultural affinity runs in the family.

There is no rose of such virtue is a medieval text with literally dozens of settings available.  Everyone has done his or her own version, and it seems to have been especially popular in the 20th century (I feel like there was a bit of a medieval revival in the 20th century), with versions by Britten, Joubert and the Medieval Baebes, to name a few of my favourites.  (Or Sting, to name an amusing but unfortunate non-favourite.)

But the original tune is actually incredibly beautiful in its own right, and I especially love Chanticleer’s arrangement – have I mentioned recently that I’m a sucker for male voices singing in harmony?  This is, admittedly, quite a repetitive piece of music, but I rather like the meditative effect of listening to it while enjoying the gallery of Madonna and Child paintings.  I hope you do, too.

Advent Calendar Day 13: Den yndigste rose er funden – Klug / Faurschou

Just in case you thought that the only people in the Medieval era comparing Jesus to a rose were the English, and the Germans, and anyone who spoke Latin, here’s a Danish carol dating back to 1542 on a similar theme.  Having said that… I don’t actually speak Danish, so I’m rather relying on this translation for that information.

The melody is attributed to Josef Klug, a printer in 16th century Germany who seems to have particularly specialised in hymnbooks – it’s a little hard to know whether he was a composer or not; German Wikipedia doesn’t seem to think so, but a lot of church music seems to be attributed to him. The text is definitely by Hans Adolph Brorson, an 18th century Danish Pietist Bishop and hymnwriter.

I had trouble choosing a preferred arrangement for this.  This version, sung by DR Pigekoret, looks like a more classic rendering of the hymn, and I like it very much, but in the end, I decided to go with this more reflective version, arranged by Ole Faurschou, a contemporary composer and conductor from Vienna who now lives in Denmark.  (I got extremely excited when I saw the word ‘Eurovision’ in his Danish biography, but Google Translate informs me that the Eurovision contest in question was the Eurovision Choir Grand Prix, so there are probably far fewer sequins involved than I was envisaging…) (Key changes, on the other hand, he is clearly up for…)


Advent Calendar Day 12: Virga Jesse – Bruckner

Basically, I’ll take any excuse to listen to (or sing) Bruckner.  I am not always a huge fan of Romantic music, but I love the richness and lushness of Bruckner’s choral harmonies, and his tendency to set the sopranos soaring at key moments in the music.  Also, I like to pretend that I’m related to him, because my Brukner relatives come from the same corner of the world as he did, and they were musicians… and never mind the fact that Bruckner/Brukner is a very common name and Vienna was the place where musicians tended to end up if at all possible!

The English text here fits nicely with our blossoming rose theme (though roses don’t actually get mentioned this time):

The rod of Jesse hath blossomed: a Virgin hath brought forth God and man: God hath restored peace, reconciling in Himself the lowest with the highest. Alleluia.

I love the way Bruckner paints with music in this piece. In the early section, the choir parts just grow and bloom into ‘floruit’ (blossomed), and the after the firm certainty of the Virgin bringing forth God and Man, and restoring peace, we return to a lovely, soft major key for the reconciliation part.   And the Alleluias are just as full of joy as they should be.