Wikipedia tells us that this is an English Christmas Carol dating from the 16th century. The original author is unknown, although the oldest known text was recorded by Robert Croo in 1534. It was performed in Coventry as part of a mystery play called the Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors. Way back when, as an O level music student at Gordano School in Portishead I was conscripted into the school’s SATB choir, it was the first ‘non-standard’ 4-part carol I learned. It gave me shivers down my spine – and it still does each time I sing it.
Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, 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 sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?
Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd 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 may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
But this is the February issue of our parish magazine. Why am I writing about a Christmas Carol? Because it highlights a less palatable part of the Christmas story, which is often glossed over: the massacre of the innocents. The first verse, which is often repeated at the end, is a mother softly singing her child to sleep in hope that silence will protect him. The middle three verses form a lullaby of unimaginable grief, a song of woe for young mothers mourning the vicious murder of their babies. The Wise Men, seeking to protect Jesus from Herod, returned to their homeland by a different route, without reporting back to Herod where he might find Jesus. Undeterred, Herod, King at the time of Jesus’ birth, felt the threat to his crown, and ordered his soldiers to kill all male babies under the age of two throughout the land. He was too late. Mary and Joseph had already fled the country, having been warned in a dream. The slaughter was utterly pointless.
The story told by the text of this carol is in stark contrast to the sublime beauty of the music. The melody is simple, the harmonies deliberately clash and resolve in a manner typical of early music.
You can listen to a Pentatonix recording of the Coventry Carol here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iCklc-j04M, and our church musicians Carol & Tom recorded it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C47njIHvJQs