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Coventry Carol

 
 
 
 

Song: Coventry Carol

Traditional English Carol

Although it is generally considered to be a Christmas carol, the sixteenth century Coventry Carol is more accurately associated with the Feast of the Innocents. It was performed in the English city of Coventry as part of The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors

Taking the form of a lullaby, and traditionally sung in an arrangement for three voices, The Coventry Carol tells the story of King Herod, giving the order that all boys under a year old in Bethlehem and the surrounding area must be put to death, since he fears the Magi’s message of a newborn King of The Jews. This subject matter sets it apart from the optimistic nature of almost all Christmas music.

Part of the appeal of The Coventry Carol is probably that so few songs of this period have survived in the popular repertoire, with the result that some of the musical techniques employed (and the language, of course), sounds quirky to our modern ears. The meter slips effortlessly between 2, 3 and 4 beats to the bar, following the natural rhythm of the text in a way that is very rare in contemporary popular music. Also, the melody of the chorus is a slightly condensed version of the melody of the verses, which elides the second falling four-note phrase (“for whom we do sing”) of the verse.

The song was written in a minor key, then a recent invention. (The Aeolian mode, on which the minor key is based, doesn’t contain any sharpened of flattened “accidental” notes.)

The Coventry Carol also contains a much cited example of the Tierce de Picardie (Picardy Third). This is where final tonic chord of a phrase or melody in a minor key is replaced with the tonic major. Conventional wisdom would have it that shifting from minor to major in this way would produce an uplifting effect. Interestingly, in The Coventry Carol the sharpened final note of the melody (on the word “slay” in the second verse) sounds more desperate and anguished that anything:

All young children to slay

This haunting old English song still has a resonance today – it is all the sadder that the woeful tale of the slaughter of innocent children is as relevant today as it ever was.

 

 
 
 
 
 

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