From the 1300s until the late 1500s, the trade guilds of Coventry performed a series of “mystery plays”, theatrical performances that acted out stories from the Bible.
One of the few parts of the plays that remains, surviving both the Reformation and a fire at the Birmingham Free Reference Library in 1879, is the Coventry Carol. It’s a choral piece about the Massacre of the Innocents, the killing by King Herod of all the male infants of Bethlehem in order to ensure the death of the prophesied future King of the Jews.
The song is heartbreakingly written from the perspective of the children’s mothers, who sing a final lullaby for the sons that they know are soon to die.
The hymn returned to popular prominence after it was featured in the 1940 BBC Christmas broadcast. Sung from the recently bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral, it was an emotional conclusion to the programme at what was the lowest ebb of World War II for Britain.
More recently, the composer Philip Stopford composed what is certainly the most haunting version of the carol. As the musician and musicologist Ian Pittaway says:
“When I first heard Coventry Carol, sung spine-tinglingly in pitch darkness by a lone female voice; then, as the lights slowly faded up, two, then three voices, something very powerful happened inside me. I understood, I think for the first time, the full potency of a song. I understood it, not from an academic, intellectual, researched point of view – though all of that is important – but on the level of my experience, my gut, my stunned heart.”