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The Coventry Carol

The Coventry Carol is one of the oldest English Christmas carols, dating from the 16th century; it was originally part of a medieval mystery play telling the biblical story of the slaughter of the innocents, and has been attested in various traditional versions as well as being the subject of arrangements by a number of composers. The present version is adapted from the original 16th century score.

Performance note: this may be sung by a trio of three single voices, or the voices may be  multiplied by any number to perform it as a choral work.

The sound file was generated with software using choral ah vocals.

Score and sound file available at:

MuseScore The Coventry Carol

or

YouTube The Coventry Carol

As always, I'll be glad to receive comments, especially from performers, even if a long time has passed since this was posted.

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Please note that while this composition is based on a traditional song in the public domain, this adaptation of it is an original creative work under copyright.

For performance permission, please see my permissions page.

Image: The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem by Pál Szinyei Merse

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Hi Jon,

Atavistic and effective, it really evokes the times. Thanks for posting!

Gav

Thanks for the response; I'm glad you liked it.

Gav Brown said:

Hi Jon,

Atavistic and effective, it really evokes the times. Thanks for posting!

Gav

Jon,  

Perhaps I'm not as familiar with the original as I should be. But I feel there are uncomfortable meters, and harmonies. The variations are interesting.

Thanks for the response.  My version follows the original 16th century version closely in its meters. The harmonies I've modified more, but where they sound unusual to a contemporary listener, it's probably exactly because those harmonies are close to the original.  There have been various arrangements of this piece through the years, most of which probably will sound less alien to a contemporary audience.  But I decided as an experiment to try to write a version for contemporary performers which, while not an exact reproduction of the original, didn't try to dilute its nature to appeal to modern taste.

Bob Porter said:

Jon,  

Perhaps I'm not as familiar with the original as I should be. But I feel there are uncomfortable meters, and harmonies. The variations are interesting.

Jon,

Don't get me wrong, I like much of what you did. Though I think you could have been a little bit more adventurous harmonically. I'm not talking here about original harmonies, but rather the harmonies in general. You do a good job of mixing melody and counterpoint.  

I could be wrong, but I seem to have a vague memory from music history class that things like this would have been sung by men. I'll have to look that up. That might make an interesting arrangement. 

"while not an exact reproduction of the original, didn't try to dilute its nature to appeal to modern taste." Interesting. I know this is your taste. But if music is a living, breathing thing, how can help but give it a little modern push? Perhaps I am bothered by The relentless playback of MuseScore. I know you are mainly interested in the notes, and that playback is only for general reference. I get it. I write for the fun of it. As a result, I am more interested in playback. But as a user of Sibelius and MuseScore, my options are limited. But not zero.

We know almost nothing about how early music was performed. And each performance would have been different. They weren't necessarily married to the printed page the way we are. Often we don't even know what instruments were used. Many Baroque concertos come down to us as a melody line over figured bass. Many things written by court composers were intended to be played once and then packed away in favor of new compositions. 

Sorry, Jon. Just a bunch of random thoughts you may not be interested in.

Thanks for the further comments, which I do find interesting.

Yes, one of my sources says that the original would have been performed by three male voices -- evidently the old mystery plays were performed by all male casts, like most traditional Japanese drama and also like ancient Greek dramas.  In these cases it was so far as I know just a convention, but Shakespeare, whose plays a few decades later than this carol were also performed by all male casts clearly had a great deal of play exploiting the convention; for instance, in As You Like It one main role would have been played by a male actor playing a female character who is disguised as a male, and his witches (see my Witches' Songs posted previously) would have been played by male actors playing characters who were female but had beards.  It seems that genderblur is not an exclusively 21st century motif.

I should reiterate that though many of my compositions are inspired by traditional music of various kinds, none of them attempt to reproduce that music in any historically accurate way.  The word to be emphasized is inspired: the idea is to apply the perspective of tradition to create something new for our own time.  It's sort of like the relationship between The Wars of the Roses and Game of Thrones.

Ah well, I'm probably one of the few who never watched Game of Thrones.

Let me see if I understand. You said a few posts above that you follow meters closely, and harmonies close to the original sometimes. In order to "apply the perspective of tradition to create something new for our own time."

I'm just trying to dig deeper into your process.

Shakespeare did have quite a sense of humor.

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