Thomas Adès – The Fayrfax Carol

by 5:4

In many of the hymns and carols sung throughout the Christmas season, alongside the idyllic, intimate nocturnal depictions of stables and 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 and 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 and Joseph. Mary’s feelings are ambivalent—“She sang lullay / And sore did wepe”—and 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 and 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 and 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 and at the centre of the piece is the refrain, Mary’s lullaby, which becomes slower and 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.

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.

'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.
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

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