As the text in Paul Edwards’ No Small Wonder intimates, there’s more to the Christmas story than just stables, angels and presents, and perhaps the best-known carol to tap into the dark side of the narrative is “Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child”, often referred to by its nickname, the Coventry Carol. It originates in the city’s renowned mystery plays, from the section that would have been performed on the feast of Corpus Christi by its sartorial tradespeople. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors focused on one of the New Testament’s blackest episodes, the so-called Massacre of the Innocents, when the ruler of Judea, Herod, ordered the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem, with the aim of killing the child claimed by the Magi to be the prophesied ‘King of the Jews’. This is the ghastly subject of my fourth seasonal favourite.
While the mystery play dates back to the fourteenth century at least, this sombre carol was added to the pageant in the late 1500s. Its slow and rather stately melody, shifting between minor and major, has been held in such regard that almost no other settings of this carol exist; certainly the only well-known example is by Kenneth Leighton, whose setting was composed in 1948 when he was a 19-year old Oxford student. There’s nothing remotely immature about the music, though; on the contrary, Leighton taps into a deeply mournful but eloquent vein, crowned by a searching soprano line that, depending how you listen to it, is either wildly lyrical or a hair’s-breadth away from keening. There’s a subtle connection to the original version too, Leighton keeping the tonality fluid between minor and major. While the soprano dominates, the first verse establishes the choir as an extension of the soloist, echoing her sentiments with equal lyricism. The second verse (in which the soloist is absent) could not be more contrasting; the choir unite for an aggressive account of Herod’s actions, repeatedly accenting the word “slay” to ominous effect. At the return of the soprano (“but woe is me”), the choir’s softer attitude returns, and, in fact, their recapitulation of earlier material is so rich that Leighton runs the risk of undoing the disquieting mood he’s established. A bit like the Paul Edwards piece, one’s left feeling rather ambivalent, the music existing in a strange middleground between truth and beauty; it isn’t exactly music “beside itself” with grief, but its beauty is certainly stained by grief. For many, Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child is Kenneth Leighton’s most famous composition, and rightly so, as it’s one of the very finest choral works in the Anglican tradition.
There are, unsurprisingly, a multitude of recordings of this piece, but the majority of them do little more than prove how taxing Leighton’s writing actually is, and unfortunately many of the better performances are marred by poor recording quality. Marlborough College Chapel Choir give a strong rendition of it on their 2001 album Carols from Advent to Christmas, especially the soprano line, and there’s a nice sense of interrelationship between the soloist and the choir. But the one and only outstanding recording is by the vocal group Polyphony, on the same CD that includes the Peter Warlock piece discussed a few days ago, A Christmas Present. Directed by Stephen Layton, it is, dare i say it, a flawless performance: measured, highly emotive, the solo soprano utterly sublime; and the middle verse is bravely hard-edged, even bullish, emphasising the harsh contrast with the outer verses.