Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Nerding it up.

I have a rehearsal tonight on some music I haven't looked at/don't have the scores for yet, so I was noodling around on the interwebs yesterday for previews of what I have to sing so that I know what to expect. One thing is a solo/piano version of this:

(English people say Bethleeeehem, isn't that cute?)

Anyway, the internet noodling then reminded me of this not unrelated thing, not that I've ever forgotten it. I don't know what's up with the vid, but youtube! such a convenient way to put music on your blog:

Jeff Buckley nerds will already know the song as the Corpus Christi Carol, and classical vocal music nerds will know that it's a setting by Benjamin Britten, the greatest English composer of the 20th century, from a longer choral work called A Boy Was Born. (Peter Warlock, who composed the above "Bethlehem Down," also did a Corpus Christi Carol setting. That's what I meant when I said "not unrelated.")

Then medieval literature nerds will know that the text is a medieval carol that looks like this:

(This is the burden--like a refrain, sung first and traditionally repeating after each verse, though Britten in his infinite wisdom eliminates some repeats in his setting.)

Lully, lulley, lully, lulley,
The fawcon hath born my mak away.

(Note for history nerds: the falcon was Anne Boleyn's heraldic emblem. Anne was Protestant and more or less drove Catholic Catherine of Aragon away. One scholar's theory is that the carol allowed people to mourn the damage to Catholicism caused by Henry's VIII's marriage to Anne. Cool, right? It's probably not true because of some timing problems, though I suppose the poem could've taken on that meaning after it was already written--but it's a nice idea either way.)

He bare hym up, he bare him down,
He bare hym into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hangid with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bed:
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And in that bed ther lythe a knyght,
His wowndes bledying day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.

And by that beddes side ther stondeth a ston,
'Corpus Christi' wretyn thereon.

Religion nerds will know that the feast of Corpus Christi happens in late spring/early summer, and will have gleaned that this song isn't really a Christmas carol as we understand them now. But medieval music nerds will know that carols were both a dance form and a sort of social phenomenon not adequately described by the form, and that they didn't have anything to do with celebrating Christmas, though they often dealt with the Virgin Mary and Christmas saints. Middle English and literary nerds will already have followed the imagery of the poem through to its conclusion and equated the bleeding knight with the wounded Jesus/Communion and the weeping maid with Mary at the foot of the Cross, and you can make a further nerdly extrapolation that in theological terms, the celebration of Jesus's birth contains the foreknowledge of his sacrifice and death, in which case we can argue that the carol is totally appropriate for Christmas even though it doesn't seem that way, like, at all.

English choir nerds will know Ralph Vaughan Williams's arrangement of "Down in Yon Forest," the popular Derbyshire version of the carol. It's got a different tune than Britten's version. American folk music nerdy-nerds will know that a corrupted version of the Derbyshire carol was brought over here and recorded in North Carolina in the 30s as "Down in Yon Forest," though that song has yet another tune and different lyrics.

Here's a live folky rendition of the Derbyshire version (recording levels are high, so turn down your volume first. Also, she could've chilled on that drone, maybe cut 10 seconds off.):

Whatever, I just want to sing it. Like this version. (Turn volume back up.)

(for listening purposes only; will go away after 14 days; buy here.)

This has been a peek at various reasons why, when I sit down at the internet to do something specific, I often end up doing something else altogether.

Also, my rehearsal was canceled.


  1. I'm only a Jeff Buckley nerd, but this is a fascinating read. Hooray, internet.

  2. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, a Tudor mention. I love you.

    And oh, yes--A, how is it that we've never shared our love of Jeff Buckley?