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Halamus Publishing - Archived Articles - # 2, May, 2002



The Articles from the Monthly Newsletters

Written by

M. Lesley Halamek

May, 2002:–

THEME: 'Tierce de Picardie'

FOLKSONG: "The Coventry Carol" – Traditional, England

Q: Which 16th Century Christmas Carol ends on a "Tierce de Picardie"?

A: "The Coventry Carol", sometimes called "The Lullay Song"

Q: Why is it called "The Coventry Carol"?

A: See below.

Q: What is a "Tierce de Picardie"?

A: From: The Penguin Dictionary of Music, © Arthur Jacobs, 1997:–

Tierce de Picardie

Picardy third or (Fr.) tierce de Picardie

the major third used at the end of a piece otherwise in the minor key, converting the expected minor chord into a major one. The effect was common up to the mid-18th century; its occasional subsequent use tends to sound deliberately old-fashioned.

A: From the Web:–

Most Baroque composers were fond of ending works written in minor keys on the tonic major chord — the so-called 'tierce de picardie' or Picardy Third.

Q: Why is the Tierce de Picardy (or Picardie) so called?

A: From the Web:–

No one knows. The term was first used by Rousseau in 1767. It is the use of the major or raised third at the end of a piece in a minor key.

Perhaps in large Cathedrals (eg in Picardie in France?), the Tonic Bass organ pipe, of 32 feet or more, may have emphasised the natural major third as an Harmonic (Overtone).

In the very resonant acoustic of a cathedral, this may have clashed with the minor third.

A: From the Web:–

"…I know that the approximate frequency of high E is 1320 cps., while the C# just below it is only 1100 cps.

If two flutists each play one of these notes, accurately in tune, they should hear a difference tone of 220 cps., which is the A just below middle C. Thus any time we play an interval of a minor 3rd, we should be able to hear the underlying Root of a major triad, because the difference tone will always be 2 octaves + a major third below the lower note of the primary minor 3rd being played.

This gives rise to the speculation that the famous Tierce de Picardy, or Picardy 3rd, came about because any composition attempting to end on a minor triad (once major/minor became a valid concept several centuries ago!) would find the underlying difference tone added to the mix, creating a Major-minor 7th at the very least, with the root of that chord being a major 3rd below the intended tonic.

By simply raising the minor third to a major third, all of the difference tones are altered to reinforce the notes of the tonic triad, down an appropriate number of octaves…"
(The link to this site no longer exists)

Note: A difference tone is also known as a resultant.

A: From the Web:–

"Picardy third (also "tierce de Picardie") ending a tune that's in a minor key with a major chord; that is, a tune in D minor would end with a D major chord. The sudden intrusion of the major gives a very positive feeling to the ending. Used occasionally in folk music. The origin of the name isn't known for sure (perhaps from the Old French "picart", sharp), although the "third" part is easy: if you sharp the third note in the scale of A minor, the minor chord (A-C-E) is now major (A-C#-E)."

A: From The Oxford Companion to Music, Tenth Edition (1992)
© Oxford University Press 1938, New Material © Oxford University Press 1955, 1970

Tierce de Picardie, or Tierce Picarde

"The Major chord ending a composition in a minor key, or in any mode (see Modes*), in which the third above the final or tonic is properly a minor third, e.g. in the key of C Minor the last chord as C, E, G, instead of C, E flat, G; and similarly in the first (or Dorian) mode the last chord as D, F sharp, A, instead of D, F, A.

This idiom was common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the beginning of the eighteenth century.

It was felt to be unsuitable to bring the changing harmonies to rest on the interval of the minor third, since keen ears (very keen ones!) could detect the major third occurring as one of the harmonics of the keynote (see Acoustics 8); there are a few people today, indeed, who claim to do this. Probably the practice was initiated by stern theorists. It was perpetuated by the practice of Musica Ficta (q.v.), and so became a convention. The effect is pleasant, as of a bright ray breaking through the clouds as the sun sinks.

The reason for the name is unknown. Rousseau in his Dictionary of Music (1767) is very unconvincing: 'Tierce de Picardie because this way of ending survived longest in church music, and thus in Picardy, where there is music in a great number of cathedrals and other churches.' This explanation will be found copied into some other works of reference, sometimes word for word, for a half century or more. ( Most probably the name has something to do with the high development of contrapuntal choral music in the north of France and Flanders during the fifteenth century.)

The practice of using the Tierce de Picardie tended to die during the late sixteenth century and the seventeenth and had nearly vanished by the middle of the eighteenth century. Bach sometimes uses it and sometimes not. It is noticeable that in the first book of his Well Tempered Clavier (1722; see Temperament 5), of the twenty four minor movements (twelve preludes and twelve fugues) only one fails to end with a 'Tierce de Picardie', whereas in the second book written twenty two years later (1744), fourteen end without it - some of these, however, using the evasion of ending on the unison. (The manuscripts differ a little in this matter, perhaps, but the general fact remains.)

A similar evasion to the one just mentioned was not uncommon, choral compositions in a minor key sometimes ending with a chord of the bare fifth. This is found from very early times and as late as early Mozart. An example from Tallis will be seen under Form 7.

(However it must be added that the omission of the third of the final chord is sometimes found also in compositions in a major key.)"

*An explanation of the modes can be found in
"Folksongs for the Violin",
Part 3: Third Position, Modes, and Pentatones.

... and in the Special Article HERE ... and in Article #23.

The Coventry Carol

The Coventry Carol (often called The Lullay Song) is not actually a Christmas carol at all, because the words refer to Jesus as an infant, and do not, in fact, refer to the birth itself. However, in tradition it has been sung at Christmas through several centuries.

This Renaissance carol is named after the city of Coventry, England.

The name Coventry is believed to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon Cofantreo or Cofa's Tree. Its rise to prosperity began when Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godiva founded a Benedictine monastery here in 1043, dedicated to St Mary, on the site of a nunnery dedicated to St Osburg, which had been sacked by the Danes in 1016.

A market was established at the abbey gates and very soon a small town began to develop, which soon acquired its own church, Holy Trinity. The Domesday Book records 69 heads of families in Coventry in 1086. In 1154, King Henry II granted permission for an annual Fair in Coventry.

Coventry was once the secondary diocesan seat in the Episcopal See of Lichfield and Coventry. A Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, possibly the 12th Century Bishop Roger de Clinton, or one of his predecessors in office, made Coventry the main seat of his diocese, though Lichfield retained its Cathedral status.

Coventry continued to prosper. By the 14th Century, the town was a trading centre known for its textile products. The dominant industry throughout the medieval period was the woolen textile trade, with fulling mills along the rivers, and many weavers and dyers living and working in the town. The town's dyers became famous for "Coventry Blue", a cloth highly valued for it's non-fade qualities, and many international wool traders took up residence in the centre of the town.

From the 14th century Coventry was a major centre of the wool trade. Craft guilds developed to look after the interests of the different trades. By 1334 the fifth largest town in England, Coventry was incorporated in 1345. John Ward, Coventry's first Mayor, was elected in 1348.

In 1210, Pope Innocent III had banned priests and other clergy from appearing on a stage in public, and the priests could no longer perform the simple scenes from the Bible and the lives of Saints, which had formed part of the liturgy.

However, members of the trade guilds took over the roles and gradually developed what became the 'miracle' and 'morality' plays of the middle ages. These plays were meant to instruct their audience in the Christian way of life, and death, and the conflict between good and evil for the human soul, which, in the plays, was always saved. (Good always prevailed over evil). Each guild would have the responsibility for a certain scene, so only the Shearmen and Tailors would perform the Herod scene.

The miracle plays about the stories of the saints and Biblical personages evolved into the morality plays which personified the human characteristics of 'flesh, gluttony, lechery, sloth, pride, envy, hope, charity, riches and strength'. (A very famous morality play was the late 15th century play 'Everyman'.)

The 15th Century Pageant of the Guild of Shearmen and Tailors, which was performed in Coventry, depicted Herod's slaughter of the innocent children. It was told in lyrics. The song is about the women mourning King Herod's brutality.

"When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under." Matthew 2:16

Note: The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors is listed as 15th Century, and the Coventry Carol is listed as 16th Century, so presumably, the play came first, to be followed by the music perhaps only a few years later.

The Coventry Carol has several pages of entries on the Google search Engine ( ). I chose the first entry which seemed to offer a history of the carol. You also get a sound recording at .

The Coventry Carol

Anon, 16th Century, English Hymn

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day,
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day,
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

The tune for 'The Coventry Carol' appears on Page 32 of

"Folksongs for the Violin", Part 3 :
Third Position, Modes, and Pentatones
(A Graded Selection of Melodies for Beginners of All Ages).

Details on the MUSIC PAGE

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