"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.
(Richard Hill's Commonplace Book, Balliol College MS 354)
http://image.ox.ac.uk/images/balliol/ms354/352.jpg (click on the page to ZOOM in)
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 Corpus Christi carol is six stanzas, each with rhyming couplets. The tense changes in the fourth stanza from past to present continuous.
One hypothesis 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".
One recent interpretation is that it was composed about the execution of Anne Boleyn, wife of Henry VIII, whose badge was a falcon.
"The Falcon Carol"
Earliest Version with music of The Corpus Christi Carol
Words: Traditional English, c. 1400 Balliol College, Oxford. MS. 354. XVI Century.
Music: Martin Shaw
Sheet Music from Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer,
(The English Carol Book, Second Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913),
Also found in Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), p. 193.
She adds this additional note at pages 299-300:
This carol, of which the follow following is a modern version, is interesting as showing the persistence of a lyric for four hundred years (the first version is probably of the fifteenth century, the second was taken from a recital of a boy who came with morris-dancers, some years before 1862, cf. Notes and Queries, third series, ii, p. 103); and also because it seems to have been suggested by some form of the legend of the Holy Grail. The Bleeding Knight is Christ, the "may" is His mother, the "falcon" is introduced apparently to suggest that the body of the person is a vision. It is interesting to note that the modern version is the more specific of the two, adding the hound which licks the blood (the Church?) and the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury, which is intimately associated with the Grail story. See: The Glastonbury Thorn.
The first recorded version I could find seems to be:
(c) The English Singers
Recorded c 1927
Released as part of 12 record album on the Roycroft-label (Roycroft # 157)
Another version from 1927
(c) John Goss and the Cathedral Male Voice Quartet on the HMV label
Benjamin Britten used the Corpus Christi Carol in the fifth variation of A Boy was Born (Choral Variations For Mixed Voices), Opus 3, in 1933.
The Choral variations for men's, women's and boys' voices, unaccompanied (organ ad lib) was originally composed from 1932 to 1933.
It was first performed on 23 February 1934 as a BBC broadcast.
(c) Leslie Woodgate (1934)
Written by Benjamin Britten, [Anonymous Author/Composer]
Performance date February 23, 1934
Performed as a part of "A Boy Was Born", in a BBC radio concert of contemporary music.
Leslie Woodgate conducted the Wireless Chorus and choirboys of St Mark's, North Audley Street, London.
(c) Ann Wood and Sir Peter Pears (1936)
Ann Wood, contralto
Peter Pears, tenor BBC Chorus
Leslie Woodgate, conductor
Decca K827 (TA2256)
recorded 24 June 1936
(c) Flora Nielsen, René Soames and the Festival Singers (1950)
Flora Nielsen, contralto
René Soames, tenor
The Festival Singers
Leslie Woodgate, conductor
HMV C7934 (2EA14568)
recorded 31 March 1950
(c) John Hahessy (1961)
Benjamin Britten : A Boy was Born - Corpus christi carol
John Hahessy (Alto) Benjamin Britten (Piano)
Recorded 1961/01/12 & 1962/02/11 - Kingsway Hall, London, England
Originally on EP "Songs from Friday Afternoons". Released on 45 RPM EP (ARGO EAF 18)
John was the 14 year old head chorister at Westminster Cathedral, later to become John Elwes. Britten dedicated this to him. It's a new arrangement of the Fifth Variation on his Opus 3 (from 1933): A Boy Was Born. Lyrics are an anonymous 15th century poem depicting Christ as a fatally wounded soldier. Became a lament for all the victims of both World Wars.
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."[
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."[