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The Curious Comforts of “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Christmas nativity scene

FEW Christmas songs temper the joy and light of the festive season with the dark realities of modern life. Most “wish it could be Christmas everyday”, or point out “what fun it is to laugh and sing a sleighing song”. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is rather different; sombre and earnest in tone, it offers up themes of hope and strife in equal measure. In a 2008 BBC poll, “In the Bleak Midwinter” won the title of “Best Christmas Carol”.

Yet the 110-year-old carol’s snow-and-straw depiction of the arrival of the Christ child continues to resonate beyond the religious to move music lovers of all kinds. Historically, two primary settings of “In the Bleak Midwinter” have rotated through the repertoires of cathedral choirs, though both use the spartan 1870s verses of Christina Rossetti. The first, published in 1906 by Gustav Holst (the composer of “The Planets”), is a hymn based upon a simple folk melody with a major/minor chord progression; the second is a slightly more complex choral arrangement with organ accompaniment written by Harold Darke in 1909.

Of the two, Jeffrey Baxter, administrator for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, considers Darke’s version to be the more meditative take, but believes that Holst’s syllabic touch amplifies Rossetti’s stark prose. Alice Parker, who arranged the Holst tune for a recording by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers at Atlanta’s Spivey Hall in 1993, says its text, which moves from the frosty first stanza with “earth as iron” and “water like a stone” to a warm kiss between a mother and child, embodies the meaning of advent. “The more you emphasise the dark, the more the light startles,” she says. “The way the light develops in the song’s verses is beautiful.”

Over the course of a century, the song made its way from the pews of churches and choirs in concert halls to use in popular culture, where it has featured in episodes of “Dr Who” and “Peaky Blinders”. Numerous performers from a range of genres—Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, The Moody Blues, James Taylor, Renee Fleming and Rufus Wainwright, to name a few—have released their own recordings of the track.

For Emily Saliers (one of two singers comprising the Indigo Girls) and Mr Wainwright, “In the Bleak Midwinter” resonates on a personal level. Ms Saliers says the song presents a realistic view of pain and longing in a sea of otherwise celebratory Christmas tunes. To honour the memory of her mother, she and Amy Ray included their Americana-style rendition of Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” on a 2010 Christmas album. “The hymn was always a part of the colour and story of my life, like a ritual,” she says. “Waiting for carols to arrive each year ties into the hope of the season. This particular one goes into the profound depth of experience that surrounds the birth of Jesus.”

Mr Wainwright says his mother Kate McGarrigle, a Canadian songwriter, also handed down a love for “In the Bleak Midwinter”. He remembers falling in love with the Darke setting of the tune while shopping for sheet music with her in London’s book shops in 2009. “We were preparing for our annual Christmas concert as my mother was struggling with terminal cancer. She found a copy of the song, and at the time it became a lightning rod for her, emotionally,” he says. “I also believe there was a spiritual connection between my mother and Rossetti, two female artists with presumably difficult lives.” Mr Wainwright and Martha, his sister, performed the song with their mother at the Royal Albert Hall that December, a few weeks before her death. “It was tough to get through it, but it was worth it,” he says. The siblings continued their “Noel Nights” tradition this year with concerts at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to benefit the Kate McGarrigle Foundation.

But “In the Bleak Midwinter” has proliferated across all generations and platforms. Jacob Collier, a 22-year-old YouTube star, posted a 10-part jazz vocal of the Darke arrangement on his channel on December 14th. On December 16th, the choir of King’s College, Cambridge (pictured above) performed its version at the Royal Albert Hall Christmas Festival. Holst’s composition frames a pivotal scene in Netflix’s royal drama “The Crown”, wherein a group of carollers comfort a dying King George VI (Jared Harris) with the simple tune and Rossetti’s thoughtful words: “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man I would do my part; Yet what I can, I give Him. Give my heart.”

As the longest night of the winter approaches and a new year lies ahead, perhaps there is no better time to celebrate this song, which counters the bleakness of despair with the promise of new birth. Its hope that wise men and women will do their part is one all can share in the advent season.


Image: Nativity scene via Wix Images




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