My Advent Calendar of Music – Day #6: Herod the King

The Coventry Carol has been a favorite of mine for many years – when done “right”, it will send chills up your spine. The author of this work is unknown; the oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella.

Today, I’m going to share a few of my favorite versions of this hauntingly beautiful melody with you, starting with The Robert Shaw Chorale:

I like this performance from the Collegium Vocale Gent, a small ensemble group performing in a cathedral in Belgium. This version is an excellent demonstration of what “old school” acoustics can do to enhance and amplify just a few pure voices.

If you’ve ever had an opportunity to sing in one of these old cathedrals, you know what I’m talking about – there is nothing like standing in the “sweet spot” of soaring masonry arches and singing a song that was written in the days when architecture WAS the microphone (most of these early tunes were written for all-male choruses, with a boys’ choir taking the higher voicings):

And now, the story behind the origin of the song:

The Coventry Carol is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th Century. The carol was performed in Coventry as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod orders all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

I leave you with this ethereal performance by the incomparable Hayley Westenra:


About Teresa in Fort Worth, TX

A short, fat, over-the-hill, happily-married mother of 4 daughters. I know just enough to get myself in trouble....
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