(L - François-Joseph Navez, 'The Massacre of the Innocents,' 1824)
The seasonal celebrations that occur around the winter solstice, psychologists tell us, are for many people fraught with an anxiety and sadness that is usually incomprehensible to those who have never endured it. It seems contradictory at first: this season that across religions and cultures and millennia is the joy-filled welcoming of the return of the sun and the lengthening of daylight hours through the newly-minted winter and into the spring just does not seem to correlate with a darkness and despair that would appear to be more appropriate to autumn. But that "black dog" of depression, as Winston Churchill termed it, bides its time in the deepest recesses of the mind and heart, awaiting its chance and any excuse to pounce and to tear at the peace and well-being of the lonely and the fragile.
It may be Seasonal Affective Disorder; it may be a bit of good old Kierkegaardian existential angst; it may be simply a consequence of the dissonance between the perceived happiness of others and the quiet desperation of one's own soul as the year draws to an end. But whatever its source, this profound sadness affects millions during the solstice celebrations, a melancholy counterpoint to the joys and reunions and feasts inherent in the holidays. And perhaps surprisingly, this dark thread through the red and gold fabrics of Christmas extends itself even into the music of the day, nowhere more so than in "The Coventry Carol," whose tragedy is derived from scripture and theology but that I do believe bears some relation, however apparently obliquely, to that Yule-related black dog. More on that connection later.
"The Coventry Carol" is very, very old, dating back in all likelihood to the middle of the fourteenth century, a point immediately evident to anyone with even a smattering of familiarity with late medieval music, since "Coventry's" musical setting in a minor key resolving into a final major chord is typical of much of the other music that survives from that long-vanished era. Some sources erroneously report the song as a product of the 16th century, but that results only from the fact that the lyrics were first published in 1534. There is reliable evidence, however, that The Shearmen and Tailors' Pageant, the play for which the piece was composed, was performed as early as the 1370s and perhaps even earlier.
The so-called "Massacre of the Innocents," the Biblical tale that provides the inspiration for the lyrics of the song as the mothers of Bethlehem mourn the approaching murders of the babes to whom they sing, is itself an oddity. The story appears only in The Gospel of St. Matthew, strange because Matthew is one of the three "synoptic gospels" whose plots and incidents are nearly identical and which may well be derived from an older proto-gospel - and neither Mark nor Luke, the other two Synoptics, make mention of the event. The "raging Herod" motif is common enough, befitting a character who in history was ruthless and desperate enough to have his own sons executed for fear they would usurp his throne, and that bit of unpleasantness may well have given rise to this otherwise unsubstantiated account of the slaughter of male babies whom Herod feared might replace him.
As with most of the physical events described in the New Testament, the jury is still and probably permanently out as to the historicity of this event. Guided by faith, literalists will accept it as fact; guided by doubt, skeptics will scoff. Most middle-of-the-road scholarship leaves the factuality question alone in favor of trying to understand the metaphorical significance of the story in the larger context of the gospel message - which also creates some problems, as below.
But the peasantry and yeomanry of 14th century England (and not coincidentally the scores of medieval and Renaissance painters who used the motif) had no such confusion; for them, the Massacre was a real event, a fitting reminder of the degenerate nature of sinful humankind, and one deserving of memorialization in this lovely but heart-rendingly tragic carol. I think we can catch a sense of the original sound of the song in this acoustic instrumental solo by Trond Bengtson, performed most appropriately on a medieval-styled lute:
Bengtson has chosen a slow and measured rhythm for his performance, fully in keeping with the pace of most medieval pieces and accentuating the deep, despairing sadness of the event. Likewise, The Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, an offshoot of Shaw's famous Chorale, here in 1993 deliver the lyric with similar pacing:
Shaw breaks one of his own precedents here. His arrangements were often built around the male baritone section singing the lead on the melody; here, in keeping with the plaint of the grieving mothers, the lead belongs to the sopranos. My friend, the late Joe Frazier of Chad Mitchell Trio fame, had been one of those aforementioned baritones in this group in the years before he joined the CMT.
"The Coventry Carol" quite naturally lends itself to female voices and interpretations, and scores of the popular music world's best sopranos like Joan Baez and Hayley Westenra and more have recorded excellent versions, for the most part with full orchestrations. Given my preference for the simplicity of acoustic folk music, however, the soloist I want to present here is a 20-year-old amateur who looks rather younger and who lives in Indonesia. Her real name is Saskia Kusrahadianti and her YouTube username is ScheherazadEify. Either way - you really need to hear this:
That's a lot of voice coming from so diminutive a person. Her lyric interpretation is outstanding, and she makes the interesting artistic choice to end each verse on a minor chord without the resolution to the major heard in most every other arrangement.
Most, but not all. This next is the track that leads off the Kingston Trio's highly original and now-classic 1960 Last Month of the Year holiday album. Beyond creating an instrumental setting that employs a celeste and bouzouki, the Trio makes an interesting thematic choice for the verse-ending major or minor decision:
The Kingstons are splitting the difference, so to speak. The last chord of each of the first two verses is a minor, with the attendant sadness implied by that. The third and final verse, however, ends on the major - a resolution, as it were, from dark to light. Given the lyric, this cannot quite be termed a happy or uplifting conclusion; rather, it sounds as if it is intended as the one ray of possibility in the stormy nightmare that the song describes.
And that would be entirely fitting, given the Massacre's strange place in the canon of Christian lore. Some scholars suggest that it is simply a literary device employed by the author of Matthew to effect a kind of fulfillment of prophecy from earlier scriptures. Others, as I note above, regard it as an example of an inherent evil, the "total depravity" of the individual soul that necessitated the birth of a savior who was destined to endure a savage and sacrificial execution in order to redeem unrepentant humanity. That dark thread of death pervades other Christmas carols, ancient and modern. The myrrh of the funeral appears in nearly every Three Kings carol, and the savior's death itself is referenced in others, like the more modern "I Wonder As I Wander." "The Coventry Carol" implies this as well: a world so brutal that innocent children can be murdered at the whim of a sociopathic monster is one in desperate need of salvation, a salvation hinted at in the final major chord of the original song and the Kingston Trio's arrangement.
In a larger sense, too, "The Coventry Carol" glosses in a way on the seasonal despair with which I opened this essay. The mothers in the song articulate their grief over the coming loss of their sons and in so doing express what is always most tragic about death, for the survivors of the departed, at least. It is not simply the end of another's life; it is the ultimate and permanent separation from that beloved other that induces the wild grief we all know too well. Those among us who suffer loneliness and alienation and disaffection at this time of year do so largely because of isolation and separation, and we could wish that, just as the birth of the baby in Bethlehem promises the possibility of eventual reunion with those now gone, those who so suffer can find their own major chord resolution into light at some time during this, the season of light.
*The first six songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes include #1 - "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; #2 - "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"; #3 - "When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year"; #4 - "Gloucestershire Wassail Song"; #5 - "Sing We Here Noel"; and #6 - "The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild."
Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "The White Snows Of Winter", "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy", "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".