Lullay my dere herte, myn owyn dere derlyng

Because it’s Christmas, I wanted to share a little bit of festive magic.

In the British Library there is a document called the Sloane manuscript, a 15th-century a collection of medieval lyrics. Within this collection are the anonymous words of a carol written in Middle English, ‘Lullay, my Liking’.

The text, like the more well-known Coventry Carol, takes the form of a lullaby sung by Mary to the infant Jesus, but here it is used a refrain around a description of an encounter with the Nativity. Medieval musical settings of these words are not known, but it has since has captured the imaginations of various composers, including Gustav Holst and Richard Rodney Bennett. The refrain, updated from Middle English, reads:

Lullay, mine Liking, my dear Son, mine Sweeting,
Lullay, my dear heart, mine own dear darling.

It is touching to find an expression of maternal affection from over half a millenium ago (and what a lovely word ‘sweeting’ is!) but the setting I want to share is a modern one, by the King’s Singers’ own baritone, composer and arranger Philip Lawson. Lawson sets the refrain with a tune that is both softly intimate and yet wrapped in the strangeness of the past: the angular fall of a tritone on ‘sweeting’ sounds primeval, and the shifting chords underneath create a spellbinding sense of mystery.

Less cosy than our traditional carols, it is a tingling draught of cold medieval air: an intimation of the hardship that those solstice days must have brought, and the enduring need for comfort and companionship in hard times. It is sung here with stunning clarity and faultless tuning by the King’s Singers themselves, and I hope you find it as hauntingly beautiful as I do. Merry Christmas.