Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Carol for Christmas VII - The Innocents

More years ago than I care to remember I was part of a group performing the "Nativity" from the Coventry Mysteries at St Thomas Huron Street in Toronto.  In the spirit of the original we performed the pageants on stages set up around the church and the audience followed from stage to stage.  The plays had been freely adapted by our director Don Mcgill - whose voice was known to anyone who listened to CBC radio in the 1960-70s - but keeping a good deal of the language of the original at times it was almost like performing in a foreign tongue.  To this day I remember that "mickle" is Middle English for "great".  And I had a role in the pageants involving Mickle Herod - Herod the Great, his interview with the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents.

This Slaughter of the Innocents is one of the
Rotterdam Bible tiles adorning the walls of the
kitchen at Wachau Castle in Saxony.
My dear friend Jim was a big man - well over six feet five and stocky - and he got the "big" role of Herod and I - smaller and, in those days, slimer - was his snivelling, groveling clerk.  Herod was of course the "bad Jew" - and was always dressed in black and gold with flaming red hair, red side-locks, a large hook nose and a bombastic bellow meant to elicit laughter from the crowd.  In those first performances he would probably have been the butt of catcalls, heckling and perhaps even the odd piece of rotten fruit. That half-comic, half-villainous Herod of the Mysteries was to greatly influence the portrayal of Jews in both Marlowe and Shakespeare.  Until Edmund Kean's sympathetic Shylock in 1814, perhaps the most famous Jewish character in English literature had been played as a repulsive and evil clown.  It has been suggested that the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech would have been greeted with great laughter in Shakespeare's time.
The face of Herod is created by the bodies of
 the innocents he is said to have slaughter in this
grotesque painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

In our version Don had Jim ignore Hamlet's advise to the players that they must not "out-Herod Herod".  A great bellowing figure in black with a flame red beard and side-locks wielding a gigantic scimitar he chased me - cringing, whinging and dodging - around in a knockabout routine - sort of the Frick and Frack of Middle England. 

Being St Thomas music was very much a part of the performance as it would have been during the Middle Ages.  As I noted earlier many carols were meant to accompany these pageants and were sung - and perhaps even danced - as interludes as the wagons moved from place to place.  Though the Coventry Carol did not appear in written form until the early 1500s it is quite possible it was written earlier as musical accompaniment for the Slaughter of the Innocents in the Cycle of Mysteries that had been presented by the the Shearmen and Tailors' Guild at Coventry beginning in 1392.

There are many versions available but I find this one by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers has a particularly lovely blending of voices.

Though there is a great deal of ambiguity in the lyrics - the only know copy of the original text was burned in 1875 and it has come down to us in two very bad transcription - it is both a lullaby and a lament.  A mother - perhaps the Virgin herself - rocks her child and sees in its future a sad ending.

Historically this is some doubt about the events as described in St Mathew's Gospel - there is no historical record of such a massacre.  It is recorded that Herod had his own young sons put to death to secure his throne.  Perhaps Mathew expanded on this event as a link to the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the coming of the Messiah: A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and greet mourning, Rachel weeping for her children.   And perhaps that is what we are really hearing in this simple but beautiful carol - Rachel weeping for her own and all children lost to violence.

28 dicembre/December - Strege degli Santi Innocenti
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