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Saturday Chorale: Music on the massacre of innocents

Massacre of the innocents Cogniet 600x581

This year for the first time in many years instead of celebrating Christmas with some of the children in one of our orphanages in Irak I’ll be in Denmark celebrating it in the company of my grandchildren. I’m in Denmark at present and heard the news of the mass murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, on the radio. One of the reports spoke of a child relating how she and one of her teachers hid from the gunman and of how her teacher comforted her and held her.

We bandy about words like “terror” and “anguish” but rarely are we confronted with what they truly mean. If you want to know the meaning of “terror” then the emotion felt by the parents with children at Sandy Hook elementary school as they made their way to the school to learn of their children’s fate is terror. If you want to know the meaning of “anguish” then the emotions being felt today by the parents and families of the murdered children and adults is anguish. Burying your child as I and most my colleagues in “The Guides” can testify is a miserable experience and neither the memory nor the hole in your heart ever quite goes away.

I’m sure that everyone reading this was shocked, grieved, and yes angered, by the news and each of us in our own way seeks consolation. For me part of what made my life bearable are my love of paintings and of choral music. Paintings and music help us to endure the unendurable and express the inexpressible. I first saw Cogniet’s “Massacre of the innocents” more than 40 years ago, I’ve never forgotten that day and even now it’s one of my referents for the words “terror” and “atrocity”.  Can anyone doubt looking at that poor woman’s face that she is experiencing terror? Can anyone look at her face and not feel compassion?

As it happens when the news of the multiple murders and mass infanticide at Sandy Hook elementary school came through I was busily engaged writing about a piece of music that deals directly with the slaughter of children and that consoled me greatly during that dark and dreadful time in my life. I’m sure many of you have heard the “Coventry Carol” and I’m equally sure that quite a few of you who know the carol don’t know its story.

The Coventry Carol is nearly 500 years old and was sung during the Nativity plays put on over Christmastide as part of the celebrations by the Guild of Shearmen and Tailors in Coventry, England. The first written record for these plays the “Coventry Plays” dates from 1392 and it’s known they were performed for at least forty years before that. The Coventry Plays continued for nearly two centuries after 1392 and were so famous and prestigious that English royalty were among the numerous pilgrims who undertook the difficult and unpleasant winter journey to watch them being performed. They were seen by Henry VI’s queen Margaret in 1456, by Richard III in 1484 and by Henry VII in 1492 the plays were finally suppressed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1579. The lyrics to the Coventry Carol deal with the anguish and despair of a mother as she tries to hide her child from the marauding soldiers during the Massacre of the Innocents. They’re believed to be by Robert Croo  and date from 1534. The melody dates from at least the early 1580s and may have been sung during some of the last performances of the Coventry Plays. It’s a beautiful piece of music with a haunting child-like melody and a simple refrain it’s sung below by the English boys’ choir Libera the soloists are Josh Madine, Ralph Skan, and Stefan Leadbeater. I post it here in the hope somebody in need of comforting will hear it and be consoled.


 Lyrics: Coventry Carol

Original Lyrics: Modern English
Lully lulla, thow littell tine child,By, by, lully lullay, thow littell tyne child,By, by, lully lullay!O sisters too, How may we doFor to preserve this day

This pore yongling, For whom we do singe

By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod, the king, In his raging,

Chargid he hath this day

His men of might In his owne sight

All yonge children to slay

That wo is me, Pore child, for thee,

And ever morne and [may]

For thi parting Neither say nor singe,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Robert Croo (fl 1534)

Lully lullay, thou little tiny child,By by lully lullay.Oh sisters too, how may we doFor to preserve this dayThis poor youngling for whom we sing

By by lully lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day

His men of might in his own sight

All children young to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee,

And ever mourn and pray.

For thy parting, neither say nor sing,

By by lully lullay.

Picture Source:All sizes | Massacre of the innocents Cogniet 600×581 | Flickr

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