Corpus Christi Carol
Corpus Christi Carol is a Middle or Early Modern English hymn (or carol), first found by an apprentice grocer named Richard Hill in a manuscript written around 1504. The original writer of the carol remains anonymous. The earliest surviving record of the piece preserves only the lyrics and is untitled. It has survived in altered form in the folk tradition as the Christmas carol Down In Yon Forest.
The structure of the carol is six stanzas, each with rhyming couplets. The tense changes in the fourth stanza from past to present continuous.
One hypothesis about the meaning of the carol is that it is concerned with the legend of the Holy Grail. In Arthurian traditions of the Grail story, the Fisher King is the knight who is the Grail's protector, and whose legs are perpetually wounded. When he is wounded his kingdom suffers and becomes a wasteland. This would explain the reference to "an orchard brown".
The text may be an allegory in which the crucified is described as a wounded knight. The bleeding knight could be Christ who bleeds for the sins of humanity endlessly. Christ is most probably represented as a knight as he is battling sin and evil by his continual pain. The "orchard brown" to which the knight was conveyed becomes, in this reading, the "orchard" of wooden crosses that covered the hill of Golgotha/Calvary where Christ – along with many others – was Crucified, while the "hall... hanged with purpill and pall" could be a representation of the tomb in which Christ was placed after Crucifixion. The maiden who is by the knight's side could be Mary. There is religious symbolism throughout the carol. The falcon may have several possible meanings. It may be that, as a bird of prey, it represents those who killed Christ and sent him to heaven. It may also represent a new beginning and freedom, which Christ gained on his death. The colours in the carol are also significant. The purple and gold are signs of wealth, although these were also colours that referred to the Church due to its wealth. The pall (black velvet) probably refers to death. An interpretation of the inscription on the stone may also be that it marks the location of the grail itself, still guarded by the Fisher King.
Peter Warlock used the carol in composition and applied it to those that died at war in 1919.
John Gerrish wrote an arrangement for it in 1957, titled "The Falcon."
Singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley included his interpretation of Britten's work on his debut 1994 album, Grace. About his version Buckley said, "The 'Carol' is a fairytale about a falcon who takes the beloved of the singer to an orchard. The singer goes looking for her and arrives at a chamber where his beloved lies next to a bleeding knight and a tomb with Christ's body in it."
Scottish singer-songwriter Archie Fisher performs a version of this song, 'Looly, Looly', on his album 'Will Ye Gang, Love' (1994)
It has been set for unaccompanied choir by Norwegian composer Trond Kverno in 1995.
John Fleagle recorded a version set to a Breton tune as “The Hern” in his album World's Bliss: Medieval Songs of Love and Death.
The carol is featured in The Choirboys's album, The Choirboys, released in 2005.
English guitarist Jeff Beck performs his interpretation on his 2010 album, Emotion & Commotion. In the album liner notes, Beck states that Jeff Buckley inspired his cover of this piece: "When I heard Jeff Buckley's album, the simplicity and the beauty of the way he sounded amazed me."
The Britten setting is featured in Voces8's album, "Eventide", released in 2014.
|Original Middle English lyrics||Modern English gloss|
He bare hym vp, he bare hym down,
He bore him up, he bore him down,
- Independent article
- Jeff Buckley FAQ
- (2010) Album notes for Emotion & Commotion by Jeff Beck [booklet]. Rhino Records (523695).
- Ed. Dyboski, Roman, PhD. Songs, Carols, and other Miscellaneous Poems, from the Balliol MS. 354, Richard Hill’s Commonplace-Book. 1907.