O joy, and joyful happy day!

Posted on: 6 January 2021, by :

Today, 6 January 2021 (the twelfth day of Christmas), those who have lived through and suffered from the tyranny and injustice propagated by Trump’s corrupt administration and its enablers in the Republican Party may breathe sighs of relief and new hope. After the cruel separation of infants from immigrant families, the racist voter suppression, the continual flouting of law and the undermining of democracy, we find new hope through the Georgia election results for the US Senate. Despite the fragility of a damaged nation, whose standing in the world is much diminished after four years, the promise and justice of Joe Biden’s November victory will at last be fulfilled. There is justice too for Georgia, a state that for generations has suffered the suppression and disenfranchisement of black voters, in the victory of a black senatorial candidate, Raphael Warnock, pastor of the Atlanta church with which Martin Luther King was closely associated in the 1960s.

Performed by Fretwork (a consort of viols) with the singer Michael Chance, in a recording from 2003.

Christmastime, indeed, was always a season when joy is infected with anxiety, when giving gifts do little to ameliorate poverty and despair, and when bright optimism breaks into the darkness of danger and fear. The hope for the world is celebrated but seems far too fragile: a newborn already under the threat of death, protected only by refugee parents fleeing to a foreign land to escape the political oppression of a paranoid and delusional ruler clinging on to power. This week, for the feast-days of the Holy Innocents (28 or 29 December) and Epiphany (6 January), the Christian Church remembers these dark themes of how King Herod enacted a state policy of murdering infants and how the inclusion of myrrh among the gifts of the Wise Men was a foretelling of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice for the sin of the world.

This remarkable partsong by William Byrd, published in Psalms, Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Pietie (1588), has all those ingredients and more: occupying the no-man’s land between secular and sacred, and being as devotional (or not) as you choose to regard it, it can reach the parts of us that worship-music cannot. Imagining a scene where Mary croons a lullaby over her crying baby Jesus, the unidentified poet reflects at length on the causes of danger and the injustice of it all when tyrants get their way (“when wretches have their will”). Modern audiences are typically denied the force of this protracted lament through stanzas 1-3: almost all performances and recordings today are shortened to become merely stanza 1 or, if you are lucky, stanzas 1 and 4. Only the final stanza delivers the crowning optimism and its political message: that the newborn king will survive and reign as was foretold, and that joy follows when the aspirations of tyrants are finally thwarted.

    Lulla lullaby. 
    My sweet little baby, what meanest thou to cry?
Be still, my blessed babe, though cause thou hast to mourn,
Whose blood most innocent to shed the cruel king has sworn.
And lo, alas! Behold what slaughter he doth make,
Shedding the blood of infants all, sweet Saviour, for thy sake.
A King is born, they say, which King this king would kill.
O woe, and woeful heavy day, when wretches have their will.

    Lulla lullaby. 
    My sweet little baby, what meanest thou to cry?
Three kings this King of kings to see are come from far,
To each unknown, with offerings great, by guilding of a star.
And shepherds heard the song which angels bright did sing.
Giving all glory unto God for coming of this King,
Which must be made away — king Herod would him kill.
O woe, and woeful heavy day, when wretches have their will.

    Lulla lullaby. 
    My sweet little baby, what meanest thou to cry?
Lo, lo, my little babe, be still, lament no more.
From fury shalt thou step aside, help have we still in store.
We heavenly warning have some other soil to seek,
From death must fly the Lord of life, as lamb both mild and meek.
Thus must my babe obey the king that would Him kill.
O woe, and woeful heavy day, when wretches have their will.

    Lulla lullaby. 
    My sweet little baby, what meanest thou to cry?
But thou shalt live and reign as sibyls hath foresaid,
As all the prophets prophesy, whose mother, yet a maid
And perfect virgin pure, with her breasts shall upbreed
Both God and man that all hath made, the Son of heavenly seed,
Whom caitiffs none can ’tray, whom tyrants none can kill.
O joy, and joyful happy day, when wretches want their will.

Like any of Byrd’s consort songs, this one may be performed in alternative ways, either with a single voice and instruments (typically viols, ideal for their doleful sound) or in five vocal parts. Here are the best two live recordings available at the moment, the first sung by The Gesualdo Six (minus one), the second by Quire Cleveland.

This post is in the songs of sadness series.