The Christmas season isn’t over yet! Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas started on December 25 and lasted into early January. I will compromise based on modern sensibilities, as always, by continuing the Christmas Song of the Day through December 31. I hope you continue to read along until then (and beyond, if you want to explore eight years of entries; if you’ve liked what you’ve seen, please do!)
In many past years, I’ve chosen a traditional, but lesser-known, song of the season for my December 26 Christmas Song of the Day. My entry for this year is no exception.
Several areas of England have carols named after them. One of the best known, but still relatively obscure, is from a city northwest of London and just east of Birmingham, the song known today as “Coventry Carol.”
Back in 2009, I helped compile a Christmas CD for the choir I belonged to at the time, the Wisconsin Master Chorale of Stevens Point, Wis. I used recordings from the first few years of the chorale’s existence, chose 20 of the best performances from our Christmas concerts, did some minor remastering, designed the cover, and wrote the liner notes. The result was A Wisconsin Master Chorale Christmas, and the first pressing of 100 (it was only sold at our concerts and through choir members and didn’t have a bar code) sold out. Anyway, one of the songs I included was “Coventry Carol,” and I called it in the liner notes an illustration of the dark side of Christmas.
The song is set shortly after Christ’s birth, based on the account in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2, verses 16-18) in which King Herod is said to have ordered the massacre of all infants two years and younger; tipped off earlier (Matthew ch. 2, vss. 13-15) by an angel of the Lord, Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt with the Child before the slaughter. Though King Herod was by all secular accounts a cruel ruler, historians and even many Biblical scholars believe that the Massacre of the Innocents never took place.
Regardless, “Coventry Carol” was part of one of the Coventry Mystery Plays, which told stories from the Bible in story and song and were very popular in their day. Many of these were created, but only two are known to exist today, as they were suppressed in 1579 under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I and mostly lost. They were seen as a part of England’s Catholic past, and the Protestant rulers of the day tried to end these traditions, often brutally.
“Coventry Carol” was the second of three songs included in a larger work, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, which covers the period in Matthew’s Gospel from the Annunciation to the Massacre of the Innocents. In the context of the play, the song is a lullaby sung by mothers of several children who are about to meet their undeserved fate, which makes it especially dark.
The first mention of the Coventry mystery-play tradition was in 1392. In 1534, Robert Croo (or Crewe), who acted as manager of the mystery plays, made copies by hand of two of the plays, which survived until 1879, when they were lost in a fire. Fortunately, a historian named Thomas Sharp was able to gain access to many of the ancient Coventry documents and made extensive notes and copies from them. No later than 1807, he had shared “Coventry Carol” with an antiquarian friend, and the song was eventually published widely.
Amazingly, to this day we use the same basic melody to the words that were sung in Coventry. Croo’s original manuscript was edited by Thomas Mawdycke in 1591 to include the tune, which was originally three-part harmony (most choral arrangements since have added a fourth part). As this was after the mystery plays had been banned, this may have been in an unsuccessful attempt to revive them. The tune is assumed to date from long before 1591.
Perhaps the greatest miracle is that the song has survived at all, much less the way it was almost 600 years ago.
I now will present three renditions of “Coventry Carol.” There are dozens more on YouTube.
First, here’s the Choir of The Queen’s College from Oxford with the Martin Shaw arrangement, which is the same arrangement the Wisconsin Master Chorale sang on the CD I mentioned earlier.
Next is probably the most frequently heard version, by Alison Moyet (born 1961), originally from the Essex region of England. Before going solo, she had been half of the duo Yazoo (Yaz in the USA), best known here for the dance hit “Situation.” Her version is on the multi-platinum 1987 album A Very Special Christmas.
Finally, here’s the version recorded by Lancashire native Christine McVie (1943-2022), first released in 1993 on the Steve Vaus charity compilation The Stars Come Out for Christmas, Volume V and on a few CDs in the years since. It’s the only song associated with the season McVie is known to have recorded, which is why I chose to include it (she cut two verses).