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Best Christmas carol lyric ever

November 30, 2017

The choir I sing in is currently rehearsing The Coventry Carol, in preparation for our Christmas concert. I did not know this carol well before; I’d heard it, and thought it had a lovely, plaintive melody, but I’d never attended to the words. I thought it was a lullaby to the baby Jesus. At choir practice last night, reading and singing the words, I realised what it was all about.

It begins ‘Lully lulllay, thou little tiny child, by by lully lullay’. The child that is being sung to is in danger; because ‘Herod the King/ In his raging/ Chargéd he hath this day/ His men of might/In his own sight/ All children young to slay’.

In other words it is not Jesus who is being lullabied, but some other innocent child, caught in the Nativity fallout: the reference is to the “Massacre of the Innocents”, when Herod ordered the slaughter of all new-born boys in Bethlehem so as to be sure of eliminating the new-born King of the Jews, as told in the Gospel of Matthew (but no other Gospel). It’s a lullaby to a child under sentence of death.

I realised this as I was singing it and developed such a lump in my throat I could barely manage to sing the words “thou little tiny child”. The carol was written in the 15th century: a time when infant death must have been very common. They didn’t feel it any less than we would, but had to endure it far more often. Somehow that awful sense of piercing loss found its way into the words and the beautiful, minor-key melody. It’s the most moving Christmas carol I know.

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  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Yes, it is a very moving carol. Part of its power comes, I think, from the contrast between the chorus which is almost painfully intimate, one mother crooning to her child, and the verses expressing the public feelings of the group against the slaughter. The bitter-sweet quality also derives from the harmonic ambiguity; nominally in g minor (the key of anguish, of the Albinoni Adagio and Mozart’s 40th Symphony), both the chorus and the verse end in the major. The half – way point of the chorus comes to rest on a bare fifth, uncertain whether to dwell in anguish or look forward to the redemption promised by the newly-born infant Jesus.

    The best carols are a marriage of the perfect tune with memorable or beautiful words. Darke’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’ is perhaps the best example, although Rossetti’s inspiration flags slightly with ‘snow had fallen, snow on snow….errr….snow on snow’.

    No discussion of Christmas carols can ignore John Rutter. Arguably, he has written too many carols, and although he is not a bad wordsmith, sometimes a good tune is let down by weak words. A friend of mine snorts with derision at the mere mention of the ‘Jesus child’. ‘When’ he fulminated, ‘did you ever hear anyone refer to the ‘Mark – child’ or the ‘David – child ?”.

    But when Rutter gets it right, the effect is pure magic – the Nativity Carol and the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol (both of which were written, like the Darke, when he was just 17) are jewels.

    My favourite, though, is ‘What sweeter music’, with words this time by Robert Herrick. Rutter’s tune, with its exquisite harmonic shifts, sets the verses to perfection. Just hearing the opening bars – on the organ at Kings, please, not on an orchestra – makes me well up.

    • Thanks Mark, for this interesting and erudite response. Is it too early to say Merry Christmas?

      • Mark Brafield permalink

        Yes, I am afraid it most definitely is ! Sorry, Brandon, but this really brings out the grumpy old man in me. I got really annoyed at our local cinema when we went to see Paddington 2 last week, on 26 November, and all of the staff were wearing Christmas hats. Christmas for me starts on Christmas Eve, although I am graciously prepared to tolerate Christmas trees, lights and decorations from about the second week in December. Bah, humbug ! (On a happier note, though, Paddington 2 is absolutely wonderful. Do go and see it).

  2. Seen it! Hugh Grant’s finest ever performance.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    A well worn fact about Paddington Bear: the first one was owned by Jeremy Clarkson having been created by his mother (the toy as well as Jeremy Clarkson).

  4. Mark Brafield permalink

    We are getting off topic here, but Hugh Grant is absolutely superb in the film. It is frustrating to watch him because it just makes you realise what a skilful actor he is, and how that talent has been wasted either by his being typecast as the floppy-haired twit with boyish charm, or just through laziness on his part. (Side note – Hugh Grant was in our year reading English at Oxford, as was (Sir) Simon Rattle. I regularly bumped into Simon, and once stood beside him in the gents toilets at the English faculty, but never, so far as I can recall, met Hugh Grant). I hope we may now see him in some serious roles, and in fact we will shortly; he is playing Jeremy Thorpe in a forthcoming TV drama about the Norman Scott scandal, and by a neat twist of fate, Ben Wishaw, who voices Paddington, plays Scott. As for the Paddington itself, it is a wonderful film in so many ways – beautifully crafted, a clever plot, endless inventive touches of graphics and illustration, great humour (which does not patronise the audience by dividing the jokes into children’s jokes and jokes for the grown-ups) and a deep pathos that had me, and I suspect many other members of the audience, wiping the tears from my eyes at the end. Why can’t all films be this good ?

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