A Coventry Carol


The traditional Coventry Carol text is re-clothed in a haunting, new melody in this dramatic and effective a cappella work. (The music of this piece is identical to Make Me to Know the Measure of My Days. Click here to listen.)

A licensed copy is required for each member of your organization.


The traditional Coventry Carol text is re-clothed in a haunting, new melody in this dramatic and effective a cappella work.  The sopranos sing the first verse simply, accompanied wordlessly by the rest of the choir.  All parts take up the text in verse two, rising together to an early peak at the verse’s end.  Then a modulation opens up a new “vista” in the third verse: the altos take over the melody in a rich, low register, the sopranos rise above in a descant, and the men undergird the layers with a martial, insistent ostinato suggestive of “Herod the King in his raging.” All parts again rise together to the piece’s climax, after which the sopranos hover on a single note as the other parts descend little by little, singing “by by lully, lullay.” The first verse is repeated to bring the piece full circle, to a quiet, reverent close.

You never know what moment will call forth a new melody.  I was on a Peace Studies trip to Brazil in January of 1993, and we were staying at an old convent on the edge of a rainforest area.  Formerly bustling with life, the large compound was now used only by a few elderly nuns, and — an image I can forget — a small band of scarlet macaws that enjoyed their back garden.

I had brought a tin whistle with me, knowing I’d be far from pianos on the trip, and found a great acoustic in a now-unused dining hall, filled with old wooden tables and long benches, dusty and stacked atop each other. On one wall, I happened to notice an original “fine art” painting hanging there, depicting Jesus and John at the Last Supper.  As I walked up close, I couldn’t help but wonder about the painter behind this hidden gem of an artpiece, which seemed to vulnerably express how moving the tenderness of this intimate friendship was to him/her.

The strangely exotic yet familiar setting, with macaws of the jungle and nuns of the convent, combined with the soulful painting — that somehow seemed to radiate with feeling into that quiet room after years of being unseen — to put me in an unusual, receptive mood.  I began to play the tin whistle, and out came a haunting modal melody, true to the mystery of the moment.

I wrote it down when I returned home, but left it at that.  A number of years later, wanting to set it for choir, I found a psalm that caught my ear: Isaac Watts’ rendering of Psalm 39.  Its opening line was “Teach me the measure of my days,” which I adapted, needing two additional syllables to fit the tune (and gaining alliteration in the bargain): “Make me to know the measure of my days.”  I also discovered that, with a few similar syllabic additions, the traditional text of “Coventry Carol” would also fit the pensive mood of the tune.

Additional information


SATB a cappella

Reviews (0)


There are no reviews yet.

Be the first to review “A Coventry Carol”

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart