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.
While a number of different interpretations have been offered over time, Eamon Duffy writes that "there can be no question whatever" that the carol's "strange cluster of images" are derived "directly from the cult of the Easter sepulchre, with its Crucifix, Host, and embroidered hangings, and the watchers kneeling around it day and night."
One theory 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. This allegorical interpretation would tie in with the seven stanzas possibly representing the Seven Deadly Sins. 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.
One recent interpretation is that it was composed about the execution of Anne Boleyn, wife of Henry VIII, whose badge was a falcon. However, since Anne Boleyn was killed in 1536 and the earliest copy of the carol yet found is from 1504, this is most unlikely.
The solo version of the Christi Carol was arranged for and dedicated to John Hahessy (John Elwes). He recorded the song in 1961 with Benjamin Britten himself at the piano. The song was included in a record with a group of other Britten songs taken from a set of children's songs entitled "Friday Afternoons", also the title of the disc, which were composed for his brother who was a school teacher.
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 was 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' album, The Choirboys, released in 2005.
French singer and harpist Cécile Corbel also performed a version of this carol on her third album, Songbook Vol.2, released in 2008.
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 carol appears on the album "Of Kings And Angels" by Mediaeval Baebes.
The Britten setting is featured in Voces8's album, Eventide, released in 2014.
In 2015 the Chapel choir of Corpus Christi College, Oxford recorded a choral version, with a setting written by the then senior organ scholar Peter Ladd.
|Original Middle English lyrics||Modern English gloss|
He bare hym vp, he bare hym down,
He bore him up, he bore him down,
- Duffy, Eamon (2005). The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-1580. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0300108281.
- Jeff Buckley FAQ Archived 8 May 2006 at the Wayback Machine
- (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.