Thomas Adès – The Fayrfax Carol

In many of the hymns & carols sung throughout the Christmas season, alongside the idyllic, intimate nocturnal depictions of stables & shepherds can be found pointed references to the bleak fate of the child lying in the manger. Sometimes, these are sung again during Passiontide, making for a particularly painful connection: “see the child” becomes “behold the man”. With that in mind, then, the next piece in my Lent series is Thomas Adès’ setting of the anonymous 15th century ‘Fayrfax Carol’. Adès wrote the piece in 1997, as that year’s commissioned work for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. From the perspective of Christmas music, you’d be hard pushed to find a piece of more anguished character.

The text describes a dream featuring the Holy Family. The recurring refrain, as spoken by Mary, is a touching lullaby to her son, but this is interspersed with some terse comments between Mary & Joseph. Mary’s feelings are ambivalent—“She sang lullay / And sore did wepe”—& she seems to find the context in which her son (no less than “a Kyng / That made all thyng”) has been brought into the world to be unfitting of his status. Yet the infant himself intercedes, imploring his mother to “Amend your chere”, explaining that not only is it his Father’s will, but that he is destined for very much worse, remarkably described as “Derision, / Gret passion / Infynytly, infynytely”. The child’s words end with clarification, that his dreadful end will achieve something utterly triumphant: “Man to restore”.

Adès subjects these words to an immensely subtle treatment, emphasising their simplicity but colouring them with piquant harmonic shifts that gently sour the sweetness. The main verses are, initially at least, set to a light, even playfully up-beat triple metre; the words pass by quickly, their narration only pausing at poignant cadential points, emphasising the cold, Mary’s dissatisfaction & the humility of Jesus lying in the hay, mentioned before. The latter portion of the text, Jesus’ rebuttal/rebuke, at first continues in a similar vein (with a prominent solo treble) but almost immediately breaks down—its rhythms destroyed & the harmonies completely askew—at the description of the crucifixion. Some ebullience returns at the mention of humanity’s restoration, but that too is dissipated in the final lines. At each end & at the centre of the piece is the refrain, Mary’s lullaby, which becomes slower & more texturally thin at each appearance. The final refrain bears practically no resemblance to its predecessors, the rich opening tutti dissolving into a tear-stained coda, the words “lawghyng chere” sounding utterly hollow.

It’s a very moving piece indeed, ideal for Holy Week; this performance took place at the end of February, broadcast live from King’s College, Cambridge, as part of Choral Evensong; the choir, as ever, was directed by Stephen Cleobury.

Thomas Adès – The Fayrfax Carol

FLAC [17Mb]

Text
‘A, my dere, a, my dere Son,’
Seyd Mary, ‘A, my dere;
A, my dere, a, my dere Son,’
Seyd Mary, ‘A, my dere;
Kys thy moder, Jhesu,
Kys thy moder, Jhesu,
With a lawghyng chere.’

This endurs nyght
I sawe a syght
All in my slepe:
Mary, that may 1,
She sang lullay
And sore did wepe.
To kepe she sought
Full fast 2 aboute
Her Son from colde;
Joseph seyd, ‘Wiff,
My joy, my lyff,
Say what ye wolde.’
‘Nothyng, my spowse,
Is in this howse
Vnto my pay 3;
My Son, a Kyng
That made all thyng,
Lyth in hay.’

‘My moder dere,
Amend your chere4,
And now be still;
Thus for to lye5,
It is sothely
My Fadirs will.
Derision,
Gret passion
Infynytly, infynytely,
As it is fownd,
Many a wownd
Suffyr shall I.
On Caluery,
That is so hye,
Ther shall I be,
Man to restore,
Naylid full sore
Vppon a tre.’

1 that maid
2 firmly
3 [nothing is] to my liking
4 cheer up
5 i.e. in my cradle

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series
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