Music/Popular Culture

The darkest song ever sung: “Coventry Carol” (Saturday Video Roundup)

Remembering the blackest moment of the entire nativity cycle is an odd way to celebrate.

For a couple weeks now I have been assembling my “Dark Christmas Melancholy” playlist, a process I described in a post a few days ago.

While I have listened to (and sung) a lot of holiday music through the years, my little project introduced me to a classic that somehow I had never encountered before, the English traditional “Coventry Carol.” This version, by Darkwave artists Nox Arcana, is by far my favorite for the way in which it captures the interwoven beauty and horror of the Massacre of the Innocents story.

As the Wikipedia history notes, the song is very old. “The author is unknown,” it explains, and “the oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known setting of the melody dates from 1591.” In truth, there’s no way of knowing how much further back various lyrical and musical elements might trace.

“Coventry Carol” is a thing of unearthly beauty, but what’s most striking is how utterly dark it is. Set against the backdrop of the New Testament tale (Matthew 2: 16-18) in which King Herod commanded the infanticide of every male child under the age of two in hopes of killing the prophesied Messiah, this “lullaby” is a mother mourning her doomed infant son.

In the context of the Nativity Passion in which it occurs, the song undoubtedly fulfills an important narrative function. That it has survived and become a standard on its own is remarkable. A wrenching farewell by a mother about to have her baby put to the sword isn’t the sort of thing we’d perhaps expect to be included in a celebratory of any sort, especially since Christians generally don’t view the nativity in terms of tragedy.

And yet Spotify features dozens of performances of the song – choral, orchestral, a capella, instrumental, you name it. The Westminster Cathedral Choir offers a strictly traditional take.

And Pentatonix has included the carol in their extremely popular Christmas cycle.

As you listen, sit with the lyrics and reflect upon the rarely-considered complexity of the nativity tale and all that surrounded it. And I hope you’re enjoying a wonderful holiday season, buoyed by whatever music resonates for you.

Lullay, thou little tiny child,
Sleep well lullay, lullay
And smile while dreaming, little one
Sleep well, lullay, lullay
Farewell lullay, lullay

O sisters, too, what may we do
To preserve on this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
Sleep well, lullay, lullay
Farewell lullay lullay

Herod the King, in his raging
Set forth upon this day
By his decree, no lives spare he
All children young, to slay
All children young, to slay

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and say
For thy parting, neither say nor sing
Farewell lullay, lullay
Farewell lullay, lallay

And when the stars fill darken skies
In their far vetchers stay
And smile as dreaming, little one
Farewell lullay lullay
Dream now lullay, lullay

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