A Picardy Third
I can’t remember when I first heard “Coventry Carol.” It was probably twenty years ago. I don’t remember who sang it, or even if it was a recording. But I do remember what I felt when I heard it. It was so sad, the death-dirge of mourning mothers whose children were victims of Herod’s fear. I imagined them, holding the broken, bloody bodies of their babies and singing that last, lamenting lullaby.
Over the years, my tastes in Christmas Carols have changed. I don’t much like “Little Drummer Boy” or “Away in a Manger” any more, but the “Coventry Carol” has consistently stayed a favorite. I think this is because, unlike a lot of songs we sing at Christmas, it is True. I don’t mean true in the factual, historical sense, but True in the capital “T” sense.
I am cursed to be a cynic because I teach Middle School Social Studies. As a historian, I look back and see the tableau of history permeated with the pain and sadness of the small and weak caused by the evil and ambition of the great and powerful. Looking at the world today, I see the same thing. It doesn’t seem to have gotten much better, only that we’ve traded one evil for another. The sound of mothers mourning is as true today as it ever has been. And, as a teacher, I have a unique window into the lives of my students, and see firsthand the terrible circumstances in which they exist. They swim in a sea of abuse, divorce, sadness and death.
This sadness is made more poignant because I, myself, have been the author of pain in the lives of others. My own weaknesses and failings have been the source of the dissonance and minor chords for those I love. I am not just a cynic because of what I see in the world or in my students, but also because of what I see in myself. Things are not as they should be, and I am part of the problem.
But there is another part of the “Coventry Carol” which struck me to the heart. At the end of the song comes an unexpected twist which doesn’t seem to fit. At the last lully, lullay, the minor chords resolved into a major. When I first heard it, I remember feeling a ray of light in the midst of the darkness. Recently, I learned that in musical circles, this is known as a Picardy Third. To me, it sounded then, and does now, like hope in the midst of the horror of history. And I realized that this is true as well.
So, I believe in the “Coventry Carol.” I believe the world is a hard, harsh place and that, if she had a voice, she would probably be singing this song for all of her children, both the oppressors and the oppressed. But I also believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that the minor chords of mourning and the dissonance of death will one day be resolved into an unexpected Picardy Third, both in the world and in me.
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